Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Does it make sense to speak of a museum's 'visitor community'?

We Americans are apt to use terms like 'family' and 'community' somewhat loosely as a way of expressing a vaguely but positive sense of good-natured friendliness. We speak approvingly of the 'classroom family' or the 'model railroading community' in ways that can strike observers from other cultures as downright peculiar. 

It came as something of a surprise to me to discover that to many Frenchmen, the term 'community' is practically derogatory, especially when opposed to the notion of 'society'. When Émile Durkheim translated Ferdinand Tönnies' terms 'Gemeinschaft' and 'Gesellschaft' as 'communauté' and 'société,  the French claustrophobic distaste for excessive togetherness can be heard in Durkheim's description of 'communauté': "c'est une masse indistincte et compacte qui n'est capable que de mouvements d'ensemble" (it is an indistinct and compact mass capable only of collective movement). 

No doubt that is why, after living in France for six years, I feel a certain trepidation about speaking of a museum's 'visitor community'.  Do the visitors to a museum constitute a community? Would that even be a good thing?

Or, if we value openness, would we not, perhaps, do better to concentrate, instead, on the universe of potential visitors?

1 comment:

Maureen Ward Doyle said...

Perhaps rather than "visitor community", it would be interesting to speak of the "audience and the neighborhood of the museum"?

Of course, these new words beg a set of additional questions: What's an audience? Does it include the volunteers, as well as visitors? Is the audience an entity or individuals collected for the purposes of the museum's lingo? Is any individual "member" of the "audience" a passive consumer or co-creator -- a spectateur engagé? And what's the neighborhood of a museum? It's physical proximity? What constitutes a neighborhood in rural Vermont compared to one in NYC?

The whole exercise leads to the ultimate question: Who's the museum for? And what would success look like?