Are Museums Outdated?

29 January 2013 by Kelly Burnes, posted in Education

Museums - The Breath of Life for Society

It’s been blustery cold here in New York City. Despite the weather, I was determined to visit the American Museum of Natural History. For one with a background and such an interest in science, I felt it was almost a cardinal sin to have dwelled in this city fore nearly 6 years without once having ever visited. So I picked the coldest day to travel to the upper west side.

Four floors, four hours later, fatigue had set it. It’s massive; the sheer size of the building and the number of city blocks it swallows up is impressive. But this isn’t a post about the structure or how badly I wanted to reach into my handbag and eat a biscuit so I wouldn’t pass out.

No, this is a post about the cultural value added to and the role museums play in present day society.

In the past 2 months I have visited 3 museums: an art museum in Melbourne, a science centre and state museum in Brisbane, and the natural history museum in NYC. They have many things in common: they rise out of the street on a grandiose scale, contain a myriad of ancient artifacts that arouse the mind into a heightened state of curiosity, and provide information overload to the brain if you try and take it in all in one day.

Museums are important in collecting and documenting the societal history and culture of a people. And with art and science museums, new exhibits can breathe fresh air into the museum life. But on a whole, are they outdated? Or, are museums worldwide missing an opportunity to do better?

I ask this question because I'm wondering what is the take away message for visitors after leaving the museum. How much reading from the displays do they one, retain; and two, comprehend. And three, what do they do with this newfound knowledge, if anything? Are thoughts experienced in the museum carrying over and causing people to change the way they are or are not doing something? For obvious reasons, many artifacts and paintings cannot be touched. I think this is why science centers perhaps lend themselves to creating a more learning centered environment. Most museums are operating in a two-dimensional world, when functioning in a three-dimensional world may be better for patron enrichment and the museum's bottom line.

It's time for a radical shift in thinking of the purpose museums serve in terms of exhibits they offer. All five senses should be activated during a visit. A little shock and horror is perhaps needed - to see things you wouldn't think of every day. Things that are taking place in the world but the vast majority of people have no knowledge it is happening. And the way information is conveyed is seriously outdated for modern society's short attention span.

To be fair, some institutions have recognized their societal value and have begun to modernize. But we're only at the base of the mountain. I see a period of museum enlightenment approaching, sitting on top of the summit. One where artists, engineers, educators, social media junkies, philanthropists, industry and government officials work together to not only curate our history, but to inspire our future in a way that motivates citizens to action in their communities.


2 Responses to “Are Museums Outdated?”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Unfortunately, here in Mauritius, we don't have that many museums and those which are still here are not properly maintained. Another big downside is that our museums do not engage in any sorts of science outreach. And this is a big part that museums have to play. It's not just about what's inside the building but it's also about reaching out to people outside. The lack of will to do outreach isn't isolated to Mauritius. Too many times, museums are satisfied with preaching to the already-converted (that is, you and me).

    • Kelly Burnes Reply | Permalink

      I totally agree with you. And this relates back to another post where I wrote "gems of science education are not available to all students across the country." Outreach, more often than naught, appears as lip service. Complacency should not be tolerated. I have an entire program ready if I were to be Director of Community Engagement for a major museum. And it would not be business as usual.

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