I have said for years—to my students and to anyone who would listen—that all museum professionals need a philosophy, something that guides them so they are clear about their direction and not wandering willy-nilly into the museum landscape. Today I was re-reading Jay Rounds' (2004) excellent article about curiosity-driven museum visitors, within which he pointed out that most museum visitors spend their time without direction in exhibits, not knowing where to go or how to do a visit, “Many museum visitors … meander about the museum, sampling randomly here and there, ignoring most of the exhibits, choosing in a seemingly haphazard manner those to which they do attend carefully,” (p.390). This statement sparked again my fervent belief that museum professionals too, tend to choose a "seemingly haphazard manner" to their work. Ironically, most (many?) museum professionals are passionate about their work and are in the field because they love what they do (or the idea of it). So why, I wonder, do I encounter so many professionals who don't have a framework for their work, for the meaning of their place in this work, and for how this work fits in the world at large?
In teaching about having a museum philosophy, I admit that my approach has not been explicit. My way of helping students develop their own philosophy is to give them a fuller picture from which they can choose. I do this by providing alternate viewpoints on each topic and letting them respond and react, and this is admittedly not a goal I have articulated outright. I don’t want to spoon-feed them what I think; that would get us nowhere fast, so I give them options, perhaps for them unwittingly so. It seems that if I were to say to a new student, "hey you, develop a philosophy" that would be equally not so productive, for it takes time to develop what you think about such things, through learning and experience. Even so, to produce productive, thoughtful, and intentional future professionals, I think they need to have a philosophy going in, even if it is just a beginning or even an intention to strive for a philosophy.
So, what do I mean by a personal museum philosophy? By this I mean a clear set of descriptions and/or principles by which we do our work, make our decisions, and affect our field. What do we feel are the core features of museums, what are museums for, and what should happen in them? What is my personal museum philosophy? I knew you were going to ask that. Ironically, I have never articulated it in written form. Instead I've let it come through my teaching and research. But I'm going to take an initial stab at it here. One thing about a personal museum philosophy to note—it is dynamic. As you grow, it changes, as it should. As you learn and gain experience, you should regularly re-visit your philosophy around it. Here’s a first pass for my personal museum philosophy:
* the core of the museum is the person-document transaction, the encounter between a person and the objects that represent some thing in the world (over time & space)
* understanding the museum, its role in society and with individuals, its functioning and purpose, requires a holistic approach
* museums should be transparent, communicative, and trustworthy
* museums are about meaning-making, of which learning is a part, but museums are not only "educational" entities
* museums are there to spark curiosity, cause wonder, inspire learning, and transport you to another world
* the museum is a dance between the workers, the visitors, and the content (including people of the past)—it is a partnership between all these entities
* the museum is complex site of multi-directional (i.e. nonlinear) communication
* museums should experiment, play, and consider open-endedness in their programming in order to help their organization (and the field) grow and learn
* museums ultimately should be about helping people to flourish
It takes work to articulate this, even from someone who is aware of it (eg. me). With each of these bullets I could write an entire paragraph that gets deeper into the weeds. But for now, I will use this draft to tweak, amend, build and sharpen my philosophy. Won’t you join me? What’s your personal museum philosophy?