- Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-first Century
Regardless of their intentions, museums have always meant different things to different audiences. Some see them as a source of entertainment to view objects of beauty. Others see them as educational resources to learn more about art history and objects of cultural significance. Our museums serve many purposes. However, as demographics, preferred methods of communication, and budgetary priorities change, the time is ripe for an analysis of how museums are viewed and how they can maintain and enhance their sense of purpose at the start of the third millennium.
We live in a culture of change. Audiences are increasingly visual and impatient for the next new gadgets, images, and fads. Museums, in contrast, collect items of historical significance with patience and care. With constantly shifting interests and brief attention spans permeating societies’ ever-changing opinions of what is and is not worthy of a second thought or glance, has the entire concept of what a museum represents become obsolete? What can be done to keep museums fresh, interesting, and relevant?
In Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-first Centuryeditor Hugh H. Genoways takes a valiant first step toward answering those questions. A professor of museum [End Page 235]studies and natural resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Genoways has assembled a series of thought-provoking essays to examine where we have been and where we are headed. He asks the twenty-four contributors from inside and outside the museum field to respond to a deceptively simple question: “What underlying philosophy/mission should museums pursue in the first half of the twenty-first century?” (viii). As Genoways indicates, “some authors responded directly to this question, whereas others rejected the question outright and others simply ignored it” (viii).
The book is organized into four topical sections, although there are no headings indicating such a grouping in the table of contents. The first section concerns philosophy and ethics, the second examines specific institutions, the third focuses on major divisions of the museum community, and the fourth addresses outreach and engagement with the various audiences or communities in which museums are located. There are a myriad of opinions, some conveyed with more depth than others. Each piece is no more than twenty pages in length, yet all offer enough substance to be read and discussed on their own merits. In essence, each subtopic could become a book of its own. It could appeal to a variety of readers, including students, scholars, museum professionals, and art enthusiasts.
In addition to presenting discussions about museums in general, Genoways also includes essays from multicultural and international perspectives, which is refreshing. Articles of note in these areas include Christy Coleman’s “African American Museums in the Twenty-first Century,” which provides a fascinating historical overview of this segment of our museum history, including the role played by historically black colleges and universities; and Patrick J. Boylan’s “Current Trends in Governance and Management of Museums in Europe.”
Regardless of his or her approach, each author seems to be in agreement that museums will continue to be important in the years to come. This sentiment is perhaps most aptly stated by contributor Franklin W. Robinson in his essay “Learning by Looking: The Future of Museums”: “Whatever happens, the arts will, I hope and assume, remain what they have always been—our best map and guidebook to the changing state of our souls, both individual and collective” (164). Perhaps museums are leaders of change after all. [End Page 236]