Today I had the privilege of sitting in on a strategic planning meeting for the Columbia Museum of Art. One of the most important topics brought to the table was how institutions such as museums and libraries should modernize themselves. Museums are a nineteenth century creation, and while their core purpose – public service – remains the same, the role they play in the community and the world is rapidly changing.
It used to be that museums stood alone like an island. The institution of the museum operated independently from the community and any information coming from it had a top-down flow (for example, education came only from experts to patrons and never the other way around). With a younger generation of patrons growing up with a wealth of interactive technology, museums need to reevaluate the way they relate to the public.
The most common theme of the discussion was visitor driven content. Museums should not only host an art history lecture or public program because they feel confident that the visitors will benefit, but they need to listen to the public and generate content that the community really wants and will use. One of the most interesting things I learned at the meeting was that traditional art history lectures, thought to be of the more “nineteenth century” museum model, were more highly attended in years when the CMA hosts more patron friendly events and services.
So there is a place for the expert and the curator! I was biting my nails the entire time because I realized just how old fashioned I had been thinking. I grew up looking up to the bastion of old world museums and not branching out to thinking of the symbiotic relationship between museum and community. When we host a community gallery show, or a ladies night, for instance, it makes visitors more receptive to traditional elements like lectures and even the permanent collection itself. Patrons become more invested in curatorial work and behind the scenes expertise.
I’m going to continue to learn all I can about the new role of museums, especially my beloved museum, in the 21st century. I hope to make this an ongoing series!