Are Museums Irrelevant?

By Robert R. Janes – Preview of Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse (London: Routledge, May, 2009)

It is common knowledge that the planet earth and global civilization now confront a constellation of issues that threatens the very existence of both. These issues range from climate change to the inevitability of depleted fossil fuels, not to mention the bewildering array of local concerns pertaining to the health and well-being of myriad communities the world over. There is nothing new about these challenges and there is a burgeoning literature which offers dire warnings and solutions for their resolu­tion. Surprisingly, museums are rarely, if ever, discussed in these books, causing me to conclude that the irrelevance of museums as social institutions is a matter of record.

I submit that the majority of museums, as social institutions, have largely eschewed, on both moral and practical grounds, a broader commitment to the world in which they operate. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be held increasingly captive by the economic imperatives of the marketplace and their own internally-driven agendas. Whether or not they have done this unwittingly or knowingly is immaterial, as the consequences are the same. It is time for museums to examine their core assumptions.

In making this sweeping assessment, I am, of course, generalizing, and I accept this liability as the starting point for reconsidering the underlying purpose, meaning and value of museums. These questions are rarely, if ever, truthfully examined in the museum literature or thoughtfully discussed at museum conferences. On the contrary, museum practitioners and academics are seemingly preoccupied with method and process – getting better and better at what they are already doing well.

Nonetheless, there are some essential questions worth considering, such as:

Question – If museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?

Question – Further, if the museum were to be reinvented, what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution?

It has been noted that ‘the great challenge to our time is to harness research, invention and professional practice to deliberately embraced human values.’ The fateful questions, according to scientist William Lowrance, are ‘how the specialists will interact with citizens, and whether the performance can be imbued with wisdom, courage and vision.’ My main motivation in writing this book arises from the belief that none of these questions have been articulated by the majority of museums, much less addressed by them, despite there being no more important questions than these for both museums and society at large.

In exploring the best and worst of contemporary museum practice, I have no inten­tion of judging the conduct or commitment of individual museum workers. I ask you to recognize that there is an underlying paradox at work here, and resist the urge to dismiss many of my observations as judgemental. The paradox I am refer­ring to is the widespread disconnection between individuals who work in a museum and the manner in which the museum functions as an organization. Individual staff members can be insightful and innovative, yet these qualities may never be trans­lated into institutional reality.

Museums have inadvertently arrived at a metaphorical watershed where it is now imperative to ask broader questions about why museums do what they do, to confront a variety of admittedly unruly issues, and to forge some new choices. This metaphorical watershed is not unlike Peter Drucker’s concept of a ‘divide.’ In his words, ‘Within a few short decades society rearranges itself – its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world.’

Question – Can we not expect more deliberate reflection from museums about their societal role – as organi­zations that pride themselves on their historical acuity and their objective frame of reference?

In short, the collective perspective of the museum community is dangerously narrow at this point in history, and many of these limitations are self-imposed and forestall or inhibit active engagement beyond conventional museum practices. One example of this is the rise of marketplace ideology and museum corporatism, whose uncritical acceptance by museum practitioners has created a Frankensteinian phenomenon that is unravelling or enfeebling otherwise competent museums, most notably in North America.

The museum enterprise has an inordinate amount of rethinking to do that will require exploration, experimentation and innovation – rare commodities in mainstream museums.

Museums have predicated their survival on being both dependent (for all forms of sustenance) and independent, as exemplified by commonplace comments such as ‘give us the money; we know what to do’ or ‘how dare you measure our performance.’ In the process of overlooking the meaning of interdependence, museums have contributed greatly to their own marginalization. It is time to forge an ecology of museums that recognizes that a broad web of soci­etal relationships is the bedrock of successful adaptation in a complex, and increas­ingly severe, world.

As some of the most conservative institutions in contemporary society, many museums will be unwilling or unable to grasp the import and necessity of rethinking their current successes and failures. This is not a bad thing, for the disappearance of myopic museums may well be beneficial, as the public and private resources allo­cated to museums diminish. There may, in fact, be too many museums, even now. However, this is not about the survival of the fittest, but about choosing renewal over decline.

With the growing complexity in biospheric affairs, and the reluc­tance of the museum community to muster the innovation and ingenuity to address those issues and challenges that relate directly to them (especially considering the unique knowledge and resources that they possess), the fundamental question is – what social institutions exist to address these challenges, recognizing the growing ineffectiveness of government bureaucracies and the wreckage of the corporate profit agenda? Even universities are becoming the handmaidens of corporatists, with science in the interests of consumerism driving many university research budgets. Museums, it is argued here, are one of the few social institutions with vast potential for proactive and effective community engagement.

The world is in dire need of intellectual self-defence, as an antidote to the mindless work of marketers, corporate balance sheets, and money as the measure of worth. Museums, as public institutions, are morally and intellectually obliged to question, challenge, or ignore the status quo and officialdom, whenever necessary. With the exception of museums, there are few, if any, social institutions with the trust and credibility to fulfil this role.

All of this is best summed up by museum consultant, Adrian Ellis, who wrote in a recent article that ‘We have too many museums with big bodies and small brains, whereas what a museum really needs is a big brain.’ Is that clear enough?

Written by FPS in: Discussioni | Tag:, ,

19 commenti

  • Kevin Coffee

    I was reading an essay by Bourdieu when an email alerted me to this blog; the chance encounter of parallel chains of thought, separated in time but provoked by similar realities. Perhaps now that the global neo-liberal model has collapsed in a heap, taking hundreds of millions of people down with it, it will be seen as time to seriously question those (men) behind the curtain.

    “The kind of symbolic drip-feed to which the press and television news contribute very strongly — to a large extent unconsciously, because most of the people who repeat these claims do so in good faith — produces very profound effects. And as a result, neo-liberalism comes to be seen as an inevitability.” (P. Bourdieu, The Globalization Myth and the Welfare State. 1996.)

    Museums have also been active participants in that drip-feed. Not simply those advocates of ‘cosmopolitanism’ contra indigenous complaints; not just the overt vehicles of class privilege.

    Comment | aprile 29, 2009
  • Bob – this is awesome and very exciting to see you start this debate.

    Museums are well-known and sometimes supported, what in my mind has to happen is they need to become “well-owned and celebrated”. They are too focused on themselves and not enough on their constituents and standing for a higher purpose – and that doesn’t mean a new building!

    In the world of limited leisure time and dollars and an abundance of options museums have to create meaning that is relevant to people. They
    need to stand for something bigger than themselves and build communities who share the same aspirations, hopes and beliefs. That purpose has to be emotionally and intellectually relevant and provide meaningful experiences that will galvanize and rally them around the work of the museum!

    Comment | aprile 29, 2009
  • Alf Hatton

    Hi Bob,

    I was delighted to get the flyer for your new book and even more delighted that you chose to start an on-line debate about the messages in it. We’ve corresponded over the years about just these core themes: what do museums do? who do they do ‘it’ for? how well do they do ‘it’? and do those who do ‘it’, do it better than anyone else? Just what ‘business’ are museums in? I’ve often approached these from a ‘simple’ managerialist perspective, both as an ex-Director and with my own small contributions to empirical research on museums: organisational culture in museums; performance indicators; and the last – strategy-making in museums. From these perspectives, and the new insights from your pointers, I am absolutely convinced that museums, in the current form, have come to the end of their useful lives. They need to ‘speciate’, or in management terms, specialise fully, and find their own USPs/USBs, market niches or whatever. They need to become as different as cars: people carriers at one end, minicars at the other, and ‘transit vans’ in between. Because, in attempting to answer those ‘simple’ questions above, often left unanswered as you say in professional dialogues and not often approached in acaddemic ones either, I see that what museums do is already being done by TV for a long time (Discovery Channel, Time Team in the UK); Museums in the UK have failed – largely, with some notable exceptions – to attract any audiences other than “traditional” ones (over-educated (?), relatively well off), so who they do it for is largely the same as it has always been; and some of the competing media actually do ‘it’ better. The one huge positive in all this, is that the question “How well do they do ‘it’?” can be answered with a resounding “brilliantly”. Museums have adopted – perhaps ‘adapted’ would be more accurate – the best of ‘managerialism’ and frankly, continue to amaze in how well they carry out their multifunctional roles, on tiny budgets, and with ever-increasing creativity, and not just “well” in terms of economy, also in terms of effectiveness. What will not be true, however, is that this will continue: world recession and concomitant public sector budget cuts will hit museums as a ‘soft target’; new media/ new technology continues to forge ahead, while museums still use largely 19th or at best early 20th century technologies – back in the 1980s, Corinne Bellow in Public View argued this point: over half the world’s population (then) educated by moving images, the older half by the printed word, a yawning gap in communication. How much further have ‘youth/young folk’ moved on with 3G ‘phones, IPODs, blackberries, etc.? And what are museums doing to ‘catch up’? I suspect very little, because they are stuck in a managerialist way of thinking, as opposed to simply ‘managing effectively’ – which of course, they are, but within the very severely limited constraints of museum orthodoxy, their very own ‘bounded rationality’. It is the “thinking” that needs to expand and change. Your book and now this debate ought to engender some serious reflection, as a group of professions and as a movement. Thanks for starting the debate!

    Comment | aprile 29, 2009
  • After being an NGO museum CEO for nearly a decade (Glenbow and Bill Reid Gallery), I know two things for sure: the struggle for operating dollars is a process, not an end, and; it is easier when people value what you are doing. I guess I can add a third lesson learned: when the economy of the world goes south, people still want to visit, but they have less money. I have also learned that the farther you are from NGO realities (soft money, lower wages, and greater inherent needs to be open,creative, participatory and responsive), the more obtuse the arguments regarding curatorial freedom, duty to taxpayers, and participation in the real lives of people. I also align with the philosopher George Taylor in thinking that the pervasive quest for individualization and ‘finding oneself’ (individually and as a museum!) is ultimately a greedy, selfish pursuit, and keeps one (and one’s institution) from maturing as a participatory citizen in the cause of the common good. We need more engagement and less starchitecture!

    Comment | maggio 6, 2009
  • A prominent museum director once told me “people do know what a museum is, but what they sometimes have trouble understanding is where it ranks in importance next to hospitals, universities, and children’s charities.” It’s a telling remark: the public’s inability to answer this question underscores just how weak and intellectually irrelevant our Canadian museum sector has become.

    Bob’s new book should have museum directors everywhere pulling on hair shirts; penance is well-deserved. Sure, blame government for arts and culture funding cuts, but we should really be pointing the finger at the sector itself for failing to persuade people of its value.

    Mike Robinson’s comment, above, about “starchitecture” is well made: bling conveys the wrong impression. Museums have listened too closely to demands they transform themselves into locally-based public venues for sociability. Where is the proof of the organization’s distinctiveness if branding is limited to a cosmetic (however expensive) solution? Deep funding cuts are a sign politicians have noticed the “museum as mall” isn’t serving anyone. The concept of intellectual leadership has been lost.

    To be better understood, better at motivating people to support their work, and better protected from cutbacks, organizations need to dispense with gimmicks and develop their capacity for thinking critically about “effective” branding. Get away from our turnstile-dependent culture and look at new ways to connect more people – regardless of where they live or how often they “visit” – to our work; concentrate on making what we know available to a wide audience.

    Strong, self-reliant organizations convey meaning, build audience share and earned revenue by ensuring engaging content is at the core of their outreach. These Communicating Brand organizations stand out in a cluttered marketplace and can prove their organization is “worth the cost” to politicians, taxpayers, and funders who grudgingly surrender resources – in tight times or not.

    Comment | maggio 7, 2009
  • Gerry Conaty

    It is so often a concern that we, as museums, produce exhibits and programs that the public will react to in a positive way – a way that is translated into high visitorship, increased revenue and enhanced sponsorship opportunities. At the same time, we are challenged to “think outside of the box” and develop new, creative experiences. I doubt it one will be able to think in new ways when the standards of measurements (revenue and attendance) remain the same.

    The challenge does not necessarily rest entirely with museum staff. In the strategic planning process, it is often the board of governors (or, in the case of government-run museums, the senior bureaucrats and elected officials) who set the overall vision of the institution. What attracts board members? My guess is that it is a belief and interest in the institutions as they already exist. Hence, it is the board who often want the star building, the star exhibit and the star collection the most. I don’t see significant change coming from this quarter.

    The other aspect of change is that it is very hard work, often with very little short-term rewards. A planning process that focuses on outcomes in the 3-5 year time frame may identify some programs as not successful that, in another few years, would become very successful. The kind of issues that Bob is discussing are global in nature and deserve a very long view. I’m not dismissing the planning process, but I do wonder if it needs to be rethought.

    Once, at a museum conference, I heard a presenter discuss a project in which museum personnel engaged with a local community. The project was rated as only moderately successful and not likely to be tried again. One reason was that too many museum staff were claiming too many overtime hours – most of the meeting occurred at night, when community members were off work. If museums are going to engage in change in any meaningful way, then we have to make these personal commitments. There is no abstract “community” with whom to engage. There are only people who are living their lives. We will have to leave our “institutions” behind if we want these engagements to be worthwhile.

    Comment | maggio 8, 2009
  • Paul C. Thistle

    I believe museums certainly would be reinvented through the simple innate biological drive to collect. Various animals collect shiny bits and humans certainly follow suit. Museums have been invented many times in multiple ways and by a variety of means. Dollars to donuts, this would continue to happen–perhaps in similar or absolutely new ways. The question becomes: what do we do with collections after the initial collector dies–dump them, or use them for the public good?

    To this point, I think existing museums have not yet taken up in any serious way Weil’s challenge that museums should not be “about something,” but rather “for somebody.” If museums cannot create a worthwhile public purpose for themselves, then they do not deserve to exist at public expense.

    In my view, the public role in the reinvention of museums has to be extended beyond the special interest group of “heritage enthusiasts.” Because we already know in what subject people are most interested–themselves!–what some refer to as the cultural puncture points of staying alive, health, food, shelter, ‘making a living,’ passing on my genes, raising young successfully, enjoying myself, etc.) will have to become the central foci in order to engage and draw the public into the process.

    Clearly, museum folk need to abandon myopia, re-examine their core assumptions, and then purpose their institutions to lead and support the reinvention.

    Comment | maggio 18, 2009
  • Further to Alf Hatton’s comment about TV and new media now doing what museums do, I think we need to be very careful to make sure we distinguish between pixels and real objects in this discussion. Although we have permitted virtual museums (sic) to appropriate the term unchallenged, I would argue the only unique value that can be claimed by true “museums” is that we work with collections of real objects, rather than collections of electronic pixels.

    Museum folk really never have responded adequately to the fifty-year old complaint of William B. Hesseltine that museums are a “colossal waste of time and money” and that simply photographing objects would permit museums to throw their collections in the trash. Museums certainly should avoid duplicating the roles of other media, but this will require focussing on what is unique and irreplaceable about experience with the real object. In my view, this refocusing must become a major part of the reinvention of museums in a world already otherwise saturated by ersatz experiences with print, electronic pixels on dinky little screens, and ear bud sound. Surely there are more ways of learning in significant ways than with earphones, moving pictures, and print. Is there no value in or room for learning from direct experience with real objects? Can museums be reinvented successfully on any basis other than a positive answer to the latter question? My guess is probably not. Trying to match the impact of or compete with new media on electronic turf is pointless if we abandon real objects as the primary medium of museum experience.

    I completely agree with Alf Hatton that expanded and critical thinking about museum orthodoxy is absolutely necessary, but let’s forge ahead in appropriate directions. Let’s not throw out the baby of museums’ singular and primary focus on the value of direct experience using real objects with the bathwater of necessary reinvention by chasing exclusively after new media.

    An important question is: can museum folk make a convincing argument about the value of learning directly from real objects? In my view, the whole museum enterprise and the current discussion about reinvention depends on this answer.

    Comment | maggio 19, 2009
  • ETS

    Cool, I love when people try to uproot their own institutions. Always fun to watch. Museum intellectuals say “we must radically transform ourselves or disappear.” “Without a fundamental rethinking of every aspect of our operations, we all must perish.” And of course, the EU favorite of North American Corporatism. I know that most people don’t look to museums as the heart of their intellectual lives, or even as being essential. They never did, never will, get over it.

    We are a bit of surplus value, a welcome addition to the cultural lives of many cities and rural environments, a different kind of experience than the mall, the market, or sitting at home in front of a screen. Last I read, visitorship to museums in the aggregate continues to grow, or at least has grown on a decade to decade scale. Budgets are tight right now, a bunch of museums could go out of business, but that by no means suggests that we are a dying species.

    So we could be better, who couldn’t? Sure there are problems with our business models, so what else is new?

    If you wanted to be essential, why didn’t you become an oncologist?


    Comment | maggio 20, 2009
  • Kevin Coffee

    Gerry Conaty writes that “There is no abstract “community” with whom to engage. There are only people who are living their lives”

    That sounds a lot like Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous remark that ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.’ Which is, dare I say, nonsense. (Literally, it makes no sense. The asocial human is an impossibility.)

    Of course societies and communities are not abstractions or singularities, but neither do we live as animated particles bouncing around in random movements. Not only do we live within and as a result of complex matrices of (contested) social relationships, but that’s how and where and why the stuff in museums comes from, and why museums have any importance to us in the first place.

    Comment | maggio 23, 2009
  • The proposition that museums might collapse is a less urgent issue demanding our attention than many others, which Bob Janes identifies up front. Yet the issues raised are not unimportant. Nor irrelevant to museums, neither are they ignored by many museums, contrary to the assertions which many respondents have rushed to agree with.

    As Janes admits in the first sentence of par 3, the problem is that he is generalising. And generalisations are a very great problem: think of the generalisations about educational attainment of school students or ‘Orientalism’ as elaborated by Edward Said and so central an issue for us at this time. (By the way, have museums been irrelevant when they have staged exhibitions about Islam, its art and history, as so very many have done since 911?)

    Because many museums which are financially well supported, at least relative to the majority, have been prepared to adopt managerialism, corporatism, tourism, entertainment, universalism and other –isms does not make the museum as a concept irrelevant or flawed, any more than the scientific method is flawed because scientists disagree, theories turn out to be wrong, history tells different stories from 20 years ago or that art is irrelevant because different people have different preferences.

    The issues which face museums and the behaviour of many museum people are the same that face most nonprofits, most organisations, most people in organisation and the interaction between most organisations and most ordinary citizens. And if that behaviour leads to unfortunate consequences, it is because we are usually prepared to go along with those who seem to have power and influence, or do nothing. (Think of the current controversy over Bernard Schlink’s “The Reader”.) Yet we want to condemn ourselves for doing so.

    Bob Janes’ broad generalisations are like those concerning attendances: “audiences are declining” or governance and management: ”museums should behave more like businesses” or return of cultural property: “countries seeking returns are only trying to bolster their identity”. We can identify museums where every one of these is not features of recent experience or performance.

    Many museums have done a very good job of addressing the emerging understandings of the nature of learning and the visiting experience – long lasting, contributing to identity – as they have of the opportunities presented by information technology. Witness the use of tagging such as that at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney which enhances the opportunities to locate objects in museum collections using terms familiar to the inquirer rather than to the curator responsible for the collection.

    Many museums have staged challenging and relevant exhibitions. Was the exhibition about Che Guevara at the Victoria and Albert Museum irrelevant? Was the exhibition of tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of New York dull and conservative? Is the fact that some museums, such as the British Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago (especially as enunciated by director James Cuno), which hold significant cultural property of other peoples claim to be “universal” sufficient to condemn museums?

    The debates about museums and their purposes and performance are reasonably lively even though they contain the usual amount of dull and boring stuff including that pandering to whatever seems to be the favourite mantra of the moment. Such as those ridiculous assertions that museums are dumbing down or becoming ‘Disneyfied’ (because they have attended to emerging understandings of the visitor experience, or failing to recognise the importance of their own collections by staging blockbusters.

    Sp should we get out the whips and the hair shirts and ask whether we should exist? I don’t think that is helpful at all, any more than is self congratulation or engaging in competition or try to be ‘businesslike.

    If anything, museum people need to read much more widely, dismiss generalisations, challenge assumptions, form alliances across disciplinary and other borders and continually strive to make a difference to other people’s lives rather than their own.

    Certainly those who have the responsibility for the performance of museums should have had more courage and held fast to the important principles which are at the heart of their enterprise. And stop trying to be like commercial businesses. After all, what distinguishes really successful forprofits is that they are not like a business in the sense of being concerned principally with the latter day definition: to increase shareholder wealth and be accountable and transparent (like banks). And their colleagues should have held them to account.

    If we don’t ask the right questions were are unlikely get the right answers. Though it is fair to say that suggesting the wrong solutions sometimes leads to the right questions, as we know from the work of behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman.

    Comment | maggio 29, 2009
  • I am presently engaged in asking the very questions posed above in the work that I do in museums, and have been at it for 20 years.

    But I am going to take a different stance here. Namely, for those who have been working on the edge — participatory, web 2.0 engagement and other audience centered practices that museums are embracing — y’know, there is actually something very satisfying for many about “marketplace ideology and museum corporatism.”

    It is, in fact, very satisfying to see large crowds at times; to contemplate a Raphael in a sequestered, well-endowed institution; or run with children where the expensive dinosaurs pose or the fish-teaming, bright tanked corridors glisten anew.

    Here, here, let’s shake it up! But before we take it all down let us not forget that, to quote the author, “the irrelevance of museums as social institutions is a matter of record.” I might argue, in fact, its the very irrelevance of museums that makes them important, lack of utility.

    In the U.S. museums are cherished for their celebration of capitalism, I might argue further and in Europe culture.

    Connecting museums to markets and social networks is fun, fulfilling and good for all involved. But maybe, in fact, we are just too many and too varied and forgot that what got us started was funding and growth in leisure. if we become too strident in “engagement” and diluted, we lose both money and tourists.

    Ask me tomorrow, and I will not confess to what I’ve said above. 😉

    Comment | maggio 29, 2009
  • Monique Lafrenière

    I am a consultant who has worked with several types of museums over the course of my career. There is little understanding on the part of politicians of the social role that museums could play besides being a source of pride for the national heritage.

    That being said, there seems to be a greater recognition and desire on the part of some of the museums to go beyond the physical buildings and the exhibitions. It is not an easy task as the tendency of museums is to be self-referent and to focus on the activities of the museum as opposed to the ultimate impacts on society.

    The more pressure there is from the outside to question their role, the more we will see museums become more active in education and advocacy about societal issues. One hopes that early successes in this arena will spur them on to broader action.

    Comment | giugno 9, 2009
  • […] Raley’s critique let me think in a new way about Robert Jane’s questions in  Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse (London: Routledge, May, 2009) cited in Pallazo Strozzi Blog  […]

    Pingback | giugno 14, 2009
  • […] Raley’s critique let me think in a new way about Robert Jane’s questions in  Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse (London: Routledge, May, 2009) cited in Pallazo Strozzi Blog  […]

    Pingback | giugno 14, 2009
  • DWS

    Hey, let’s not go off half-cocked here. While it is true that most museums could a do a better job understanding the needs of the public they aim to serve, most are also not teetering on the precipice of extinction either. Is it because we’ve got the authentic stuff as Paul Thistle argues above? Partly, perhaps. But I think it’s more complicated than that — museums are real places too, places to retreat too when you get sick of staring at the computer monitor, places where you can see real people and experience things in good company. Museums have never been entirely all about weighty ideas or objects of wonder, they have also served an important diversionary function, as a place to recreate, to reflect, to share conversations, have lunch, a refuge from the drudgery of the workplace or home, and typically at a pretty good value when compared to the expense of other things to do with one’s leisure moments. As long as people still enjoy the delights of serendipity and don’t get priced out, museums will be visited — even the atrocious ones.

    The corporatist museum model Janes refers to may already be headed toward oblivion as we speak. Museums are lousy business propositions and always have been. And this is the secret of their persistence. Here in the US, there are few corporations that have endured as long as the oldest museums. Why? Museums, for all of their shortcomings, are emblems of civic pride, they not only stand for the communities that support them, but they also symbolize continuity in the face of terrifying change. Max Weber observed that while all bureaucracies are created to fulfill a function, in time the primary preoccupation of a bureaucracy is self-preservation. Museums, as bureaucratic institutions, excel at this, they wheedle and cajole generations of patrons and elected officials with the promise of immortality. Once General Motors has screwed what remains of its workforce for the last time, who cares if it perishes? They may have earned a lot of money for a time, but they were not built for the long haul. Just because we once loved driving Chevys doesn’t mean we love GM enough to keep it around indefinitely. But a community faced with seeing its museums stripped away will have something to say about it, whether the museums deserve the defense or not.

    Comment | giugno 16, 2009
  • johanne landry

    thank Bob for sharing this site with me…i have not read your book yet neither the site supported by this foundation..(.which i congratulaed for its beautiful museum in milan that i visited recently …) i would like to mention a project in africa where the museum’s collection comes from the people in the village…and they can received money for their knowledge about the object they have brought..quite interesting…like the educational program in sudbury where they do an exchange with the kids that bring specimen…
    i will order your book soon…

    Comment | luglio 1, 2009
  • Eugene Dillenburg

    I cannot agree with Kevin Coffee’s statement (above). What Gerry Contay (and Margaret Thatcher) are driving at is that “society” and “community” are emergent phenomena — they arise out of the interactions of people. Where there are no people, or no interactions, there is no society. Society does not exist as a thing unto itself, and therefore is indeed an abstraction, a step removed from its actual components.

    (As for asocial humans being an impossibility, there is a long tradition of hermits, “mountain men,” and other loners to disprove that notion.)

    “Society” is also at best a crude approximation. Within any large group of people, there will be numerous exceptions to any rule.

    This doesn’t mean “society” is a fiction. As Coffee notes, our interactions with others affect what we do. (In some cases, they effect what we do!)

    Nevertheless, Contay (and Thatcher) are right on the money. “Society” may be a handy mental shortcut, but at the end of the day, it is individual people who walk in the door, attend our programs, pay the admission fee. We serve real individuals, not abstract groups. We forget this at our peril.

    Comment | agosto 17, 2009
  • Kevin Coffee

    Eugene Dillenberg has it exactly in reverse. Society does not ‘emerge’ out of individuals, individuals are produced by societies — one would think a cursory sense of biology would suffice here. But even hermits have parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and language, customs, culture, do not arise spontaneously from within…

    Comment | settembre 8, 2009

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