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What defines a museum?
By Frederick A. Johnsen
A succinct definition of what constitutes a museum is as elusive as the end of the rainbow, and may never get universal buy-in. Some museum professionals note with a sigh that “anyone who has ever visited a museum thinks they know how to run a museum”.
The word, “museum” is bandied casually to conjure everything from a private individual’s collection of arcane stuff that is seldom seen by the public, all the way up to the methodical and wonderfully focused collections and themes of major institutions like the Smithsonian complex.
For decades, museum professionals have delved into ways to harness technology and entertainment in an effort to engage the interest and participation of diverse audiences. Although static collections of interpreted artifacts are still central to a museum's rationale, the modern museum offers more -- classroom experiments, museum sleepovers, flight simulators, special events, distance-learning, living history re-enactments, or other participatory opportunities for visitors.
Perhaps the best arbiter of the definition of “museum” is museologist G. Ellis Burcaw. He wrote the book, literally, that defines museums, and informs museum professionals. His Introduction to Museum Work (AltaMira Press, an American Association for State and Local History Series Book) is a thoughtful guide that threads its way through pitfalls and pinnacles of museum experiences. Burcaw’s observations steer the reader to a greater understanding of the obligations and the opportunities museums can offer society. His conclusions can alternately confirm and challenge the reader’s preconceived notions.
It’s an outstanding read not only for museum professionals, but for dedicated museum visitors, supporting board members, and volunteer docents as well. Burcaw, and others in the museum profession, argue that to be a genuine museum requires a deliberate and disciplined collection of material items that can be used to impart educational, entertainment, and emotional value to visitors.
Furthermore, that collection and its physical environment need to be enshrined and endowed in perpetuity. If we’re not in it for the long haul, we’re not really a museum.
While some museums, particularly of national or international significance, may aspire to preserve one-of-everything in a particular discipline, the professional staffs of most smaller museums know they can never afford to have, or care for, “everything”. Hence, museum directors and curators become masters of using well-placed iconic examples to tell their stories, and they don’t lose sleep over not having all 231 variations of sturmstrudel speed blimps when they have just one that can tell the story admirably.
A good museum has a succinct theme and story line that informs its collection policy and keeps it disciplined. Benefits are two-fold: the public gets a coherent presentation free from extraneous and confusing clutter, and the always cash-strapped museum doesn’t obligate itself to the perpetual care of items it doesn’t need.
If this article piques your interest, please consider reading Ellis Burcaw’s eloquent book. And enjoy your next visit to a museum with a new set of expectations and understanding.
JANUARY 25, 2015
Scrapping historic Washington ferry Kalakala
The famous art-deco streamlined ferry Kalakala is to be demolished near Tacoma, Washington, as seen in this January 24, 2015 photo. Kalakala plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1935 to 1967 as a ferry before moving to Alaska as a cannery after retirement from ferry duty. (Photo by Kenneth G. Johnsen)
The historic art-deco streamlined ferry Kalakala was scrapped near Tacoma, Washington after many years of efforts to restore and preserve the boat did not achieve that goal.
Once known for moonlight cruises with a live dance band in the 1930s after its daytime ferry runs to Bremerton, the futuristically rounded Kalakala could still be seen shuttling across Puget Sound as late as 1967. The Kalakala's fate shows how fragile the net for historic preservation can be. Many people made ongoing efforts to save the Kalakala, including providing low-cost moorage near Tacoma for years, but it has been said restoration could have cost $25 million.
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