What does it mean for a museum to be? Why does the museum exist and how?
For about a decade now I have been writing about museums from a scholarly perspective (but always also as a former practitioner) and in those years, I co-developed a holistic model that aims to involve all aspects of the museum—from behind the scenes to the public facing view—as a system that exists within other systems (Latham & Simmons, 2014). While the model simplifies the museum to inner and outer (and internal and external) systems, it does so as a way to talk about these different aspects of the museum, a device of sorts. But right about here in the process of talking about museums, I consistently find that I want a way to refer to the it on a broader level, acknowledging its more obvious, practical aspects (such as exhibition, interpretation, and collecting) to its more invisible components (purpose, process, character, status, etc) to its shifting meaning in society. Calling it simply “the museum” does not work because this is the common word for the outer museum (the public-facing aspect, and only one part of the whole). I want to encompass all of museums’ histories as well as its potential futures, and involve each kind of museum, over time and space. When talking about the individual human, we might say personhood or the more ontological, being. In the past year, I have come to think of this expansive, all-encompassing museum as museum being, which involves the fullness of its existence, not just the structure, the collection, the people, the visitors, but also the mission, the purpose, the processes, history, and the character of that museum. My research partner, Tim Gorichanaz and I have written about being as a potential contemplative aim for information institutions like libraries and museums:
We may think of being as a simple question of form and matter, i.e., substance, but such
definitions of being do not capture all that is meant when we speak of being. For instance, the
being of some things manifests as who, while that of others manifests as what; and there is quite a
different quality to I am than there is to it is. For humans, engaging with the question of being is
engaging with one’s existence as a subject, one’s distinction from other people and things, and
one’s presence and history. Put differently, being is a sense of one’s standing on solid ground, a
sense of wholeness and belonging, (Gorichanaz & Latham, 2019: 8).
Engaging with one’s existence as a subject, as distinct from other things, one’s presence and history, sense of belonging…if we consider the concept of museum being, what might we say that hasn’t been said in contemplations surrounding mission, purpose, etc? Can the term take us to a different level of thinking about the museum in the world, both as it sits now, and its trajectory from its beginnings to today? Is there another level to explore, one that is deeper or more lofty, longer-term, and more (dare I say) universal? Interestingly, with human beings, we might think of being as going inward, as interiority, or of being mindful. Some might say that this view of being is selfish, and that thinking of and about oneself leads to lack of consideration of others. In actuality, studies show that “when a person engages in mindfulness and other contemplative practices, they come to better understand their place in the web of life and even come to realize that their sense of a stable, transcendental self may be illusory,” (Gorichanaz & Latham, 2019: 8). Might it work this way for museum being as well? By thinking about museum existence, can this help us to understand better the museum’s place in the world and its nature as a constantly shifting entity? The notion of museums as fluid and evolving, dynamic and everchanging, is, in fact, the very need for this term. About people and mindfulness, Tim and I say:
Inwardness, then, is a path towards increasing attention and care for current issues, such as the
environment, sustainability, etc. ‘How we, in our interiority, experience our selves, other people,
and environments has direct relational and actional consequence to the world’…By seeing the
outer reflected by one’s own interiority, working mindfully with inner materials brings about
greater authenticity, integrity, and wisdom to reflect back onto the world (2019: 8).
While interiority may not exactly be where we go with museum being, the notion does inspire a certain sense of self-awareness and investigation, a way of going deeper. Thinking about the museum from this perspective may permit us to see the bigger picture, one that spans both temporal and geographical elements. Doing this existential work might aid museums in asking bigger questions about themselves, about their integrity, value, authenticity, and as entities that are seen to hold great wisdom and truth. If museums claim to be trustworthy institutions that represent humanity, it might do well to have a more philosophical perspective to explore them.
Gorichanaz, T., and Latham, K.F. (2019). Contemplative aims for information. Information Research, 24(3), paper 836. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/24-3/paper836.html
Latham, K. F., & Simmons, J. E. (2014). Foundations of museum studies: Evolving systems of knowledge. ABC-CLIO Libraries Unlimited.
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.