History museums, learning from history
Can museums use museum history to think about the future? Can their past successes and failures guide them? How might they find possibility and potential in the past when they need to change?
I suggest that one way to do this is to look to the long history of museums. Museums have been many things. They have found many ways that museums have balanced the often-conflicting needs of audience, collections, patrons, and educational goals. Looking to this history can help museums today make difficult decisions about how they should move ahead.
There’s a lot that in the nature of a museum that militates against change.
Collections create enormous momentum. You need to take care of them. They are the heavy hand of the past, the physical incarnation of a museum’s long history of decision-making. (In some museums, they are literally heavy, too.) There are legal, ethical, and practical reasons that make them hard to abandon, and they shape planning and budgets in significant ways.
Space shapes future planning: museums are physical places, determining what is easy to do, what would be too difficult.
Governance and finance also militate toward stasis. It’s a lot of work for a board to reimagine the mission of a museum. Financial support comes, mostly, for doing what the museum is already doing, not for something new.
Beyond these physical and financial constraints, there’s often moral dimension, a spiritual constraint. Museums – museum people – are, in the immortal words of John Belushi, “on a mission from God.” They aren’t in the business for the money, certainly. They’re doing God’s work, whether that be preserving historical relics or teaching children to appreciate art work. They have a higher mission, and they’ll fight to keep on doing it.
So, history keeps on happening. A museum in motion tends to remain in motion.
But over the past 200 or so years of the modern museum, museums have have reinvented themselves many times. They have filled many niches. The basic idea of a museum – collections, a social space, a mission that combines education, entertainment, and engagement – turns out to have many variations, something for every era.
I recently gave a talk to the advisory board of the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont. It’s a small museum, in a small town, but well worth a visit. It’s in a special category of museums: a world-class collection in a small museum. The APM has one of the best historical collections of machine tools – precision metal-working tools – of any museum. It’s a remarkable place.
But like so many museums, it’s facing some challenges. It’s trying to figure out how to move ahead. How might it use its great collection, its historically significant space, and its great store of goodwill in the local community and the national community of machine tool collectors and machine tool firms, to move to the next level?
I didn’t have an answer for them, but instead urged that they look to the history of similar museums. There’s a 200-year history of technology museums in the United States, and they’ve tried a vast range of approaches to the field.
I wasn’t trying to say: here’s what’s possible – though history provides a remarkable range of possibilities. Rather, I wanted to open their thinking, to open the range of answers to the question of what comes next.
And I wanted to suggest cause for optimism. Each era, I suggested, gets the museums it needs and wants. Museums are flexible, in the long run, and it’s the most flexible ones that survive, in the long run. We are in an era of great interest and enthusiasm for innovation and technology. That bodes well for a museum focused on the history of technology. The question for the advisory board is: how best to catch that wave and ride it? How best to present collections and history for a new audience?
Museums may be conservative places, slow to change. But the history of museums suggests that they can and do change. Looking to the past can help museums prepare for the future. History can inform and inspire not just our visitors, but museums themselves.
Here’s the slides from my talk. Mostly pictures.
I wrote up some this history in “American Technology Museums: From Machines to Culture,” Ferrum; Nachrichten aus der Eisenbibliothek Stiftung der Georg Fischer AG (83) 2011.