A few months ago I attempted to start a blog just about museums and my public history experiences. However, I am a public historian and that means I work a regular job that does not allow the same time for reflecting and writing as academia did so instead of trying to keep up with two blogs I would expand CanEnviroRock in content to include my public history life — which it sort of did already.
To kick of the migration and consolidation here is the lone post to make it on to MuseumsRock so it is not lost to the ether of the internet when I close that page in the near future.
Why Museums Matter
A museum is a place you choose to go to because of what it says about who you are (and who you aspire to be). Visiting a museum is a leisure choice and all leisure activities are reflections of the perceived and desired identity of the individual as well as the perceived meaning of the activity. This places museums in an odd position; as a sector it is undergoing a huge shift in what it means to be a museum and what a museum can offer to communities by expanding exhibits, programs, and services in new directions, but communities tend to think of museums as a stagnant storehouse for artifacts, as the solemn site of reflection and study museums were at the turn of the 20th century. The great challenge facing museums is the long-term project of changing how museums are imagined by individuals in the process making them places more people seek out in their leisure time.
John Falk asserts that the act of visiting a museum is an act of identity formation and confirmation which means the perceived image of the museum is the greatest influence on the decision to visit a museum. He further unpacks this idea in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by breaking museum visitors down into 5 types; Explorer, Facilitator, Experience Seeker, Professions/Hobbyist, and Recharger. These types are fluid – you might be an explorer one day and a Recharger the next – and are useful for museum professionals seeking to categorize and better serve their audience. The types allow for quick checks of whether or not an exhibit will facilitate and attract a diverse audience then keep them engaged for an extended visit. However, Falk’s typing of visitors does not explore how those same identity types inform the decision to not visit a museum, to choose a different leisure activity in order to meet the same identity-needs. This is a point Nina Simons explored after the publication of Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience on her blog Museum 2.0 and what struck me when reading Falk and Dierking’s 2013 book The Museum Experience Revisited. Museums are great at catering to the people who already visit but how to entice new visitors is a greater challenge and one close to my heart.
Now it is time for a confession: I work in museums and I love museums, but I do not often visit museums for leisure. Based on the assertion that the choice to visit a museum speaks to an individual’s identity my avoidance of them in my leisure time would suggest I do not care for or value the institutions. This could not be further from the truth – if you have met me it is obvious within minutes that museums are one of my passions – yet it takes often something completely different to get me into a museum on a Saturday afternoon. I want to visit institutions that push the envelope of what a museum is and can do. I want to see the space being used in non-traditional ways, exhibits about topics outside the conventional realm, collections so obscure you have to see it to believe it. I want to see museums that breakdown the walls of preconceptions of what a museum is what it can do. I want the weird and I want to see it done well. This is not to say I don’t appreciate and enjoy a traditional museum, but what gets me really excited is the weird and wonderful of a museum trying something different and leaving its comfort zone.
The weird and wonderful and different is what makes me visit a museum. Now I ask a question I put out on Twitter (@canenvirorock) a few weeks ago with an amendment; Why do you visit museums, or why don’t you visit museums? Feel free to answer in the comments.