What are museums For?

1048Looking through my notes for 2013 I stumbled across this blog post that I was working on back when I first saw this installation by Luis Camnitzer hanging outside the Belkin Gallery at UBC.  Enjoy!

Museums are not just places to store and exhibit works or art, or historical interest, they are where societies, groups and even individuals make and recreate themselves.

Museums are diverse because their stories and visitors are also diverse and ever-everchanging.
Even a single individual will experience the same exhibit differently, should he or she visit multiple times.  
The old adage you can’t step into the same river twice certainly applies to museums.  Author J.D. Salinger expressed this idea quite admirably (although in language that is a bit outmoded by today’s standards):

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was…. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way—I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

So, museums are not just places or learning, or schools, but they are places where you can learn about yourself.  
But, just as there is no single unchanging version of yourself, there is no one concept of what a museum should be.
Identity Project by Valeria Durden

Identity Project by Valeria Durden


This is not a problem, it is the glorious result of diversity and ever changing complexity.

Museums try to speak to that complexity.  

Our job is to question, inquire, investigate!

A museums job is not to make us feel good- but to make us think!

So if you are in a museum and you see something you don’t like, if something offends you, or if an exhibit evokes emotion or memories- think about why, say something, tell someone.

If a museum makes you think, it’s doing its job.

This is what museums are for.  


6 responses to “What are museums For?

      • I think we can try and make people ask this question at least 🙂 I think the worst part is that people do not ask questions/reflect on what matters. Not many archaeologist are interested in the public representation of scientific data either, so…
        But your post is definitely a great start!

  1. Hello Mel 🙂

    I loved your post and I would love to have it as a reference in one of my presentations for school, and I will of course refer to you as the writer of the article. Would that be possible!?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Azzeddine.

      I’m curious to learn where my post fit in your school work. What’s your course on?
      In any case, I’m the author of this piece so you’d be right in referencing me as such, but nice to be asked.

      With thanks,

  2. Good day Mel,

    I really appreciate your prompt reply 🙂
    I’m a Moroccan university student. I study English language under the theme of “Moroccan American studies”. I’m doing my graduate research papers about Museums. I dedicated a part of my research to comparing different approaches towards Museums. I liked your ideas about what are museums for, because, I, myself, believe that Museums are meant for more than just academics or professionals.
    What am I going to use your article for?
    I will “quote” some lines and put a reference to your original article in the footnote.
    I hope this answers your question 🙂

    Many thanks,

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