Museums of Ideas: Commitment and Conflict

What is the definition of museum?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the definition of museum is: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting interest or value.

I recently co-wrote an article for MuseumsEtc and their new publication, Museums of Ideas: Commitment and Conflict; it includes articles from 17 different countries. It’s crazy to think that I’m a part of it.

What is a Museum of Ideas?

Traditionally, museums have been established on the basis of collections. However, some of today’s most challenging and dynamic museums are those founded on the basis of ideas. Their themes may span human rights, social inclusion, peace, war, health, gender, climate change… Their size, budget, scope and ambitions may differ, but they are all driven and committed in a way which tends to set them apart.

Founded on the basis of ideas. Are ideas enough?

I’d like to share a piece from the article I co-wrote with Dina Bailey (@NURFCdina) and Stephanie Creech titled, “Freedom: The Need for Courage, Cooperation, & Perseverance as the Struggle Continues.”

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been, and continues to be, many things to many people.  Located on the banks of the Ohio River, where significant Underground Railroad activity historically took place, there is no better location for a museum founded in the stories of the Underground Railroad.  As a museum of conscience, the Freedom Center illustrates the tragic reality of American chattel slavery and celebrates the brave actions of those who sought its abolition while inspiring visitors to take up contemporary causes to become present-day agents of change.  As a museum of ideas, the Freedom Center exemplifies how an institution may base its mission, exhibitions, and programs on ideas.  While maintaining that collections are an important component of exhibitions, the Freedom Center does not (as a matter of course) build its exhibitions around artifacts or archival documents.  As a center, the Freedom Center demonstrates its potential to become a cultural hub, a place where action and movement are expected by hosting lectures, forums, conferences, and other educational programming.  As an institution, in past years, we have striven to maintain this balance of being many things to many people.

This is, in part, due to the Freedom Center’s acknowledgement that stories have power and resonate uniquely with each individual based on cultural and personal experiences.  As Naomi Tutu said, during her visit to the Freedom Center, “Stories force you to synthesize, to listen and remember.”

Collections are an integral part of any institution – they are the puzzle pieces that build the stories shared within the walls of any museum. But, as museums, aren’t we looking for ways to personalize the museum experience? We want visitors to be engaged and internalize what they have observed, learned and felt; “look” and leave is not the purpose of the experience. How do we do that? We have to look beyond the collection and evaluate what each piece means/represents in the overall story/mission of our institutions. What if an extensive collection isn’t available but the idea and the story is?

Ideas + Stories = Museums of the Future?

If you are interested in purchasing Museums of Ideas: Commitment and Conflict, click here. ICOM News said it’s, “a useful management handbook for living your institutional values… thoughtful and probing… intelligence and stark precision.”

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