Thursday, May 1, 2008

Museums and communities?

What's the relationship between a museum and its community? The relationship is at least as messy as the sum of its messy parts. After all, what's a museum and what's a community?

Within a 20-mile radius of my home, institutions as disparate as the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Billings Farm & Museum, The Main Street Museum, Woodstock Historical Society, Saint-Gaudens Memorial, American Precision Museum and Justin Morrill Homestead all carry the tag line, museum. What do they have in common that makes them a "museum"? I would venture to say "Collections that they make available to the public through a combination of exhibits and educational programs".

Having perused their mission statements, I'd add that they all strive to serve their communities. But what is their community? What is the community of any museum? Is it the people who live locally? If so, is it everyone or only people of certain ages or socio-economic profiles? Or is the community further afield, such as all Dartmouth alumni or scholars of the Cornish Colony? Is it lovers of old documents, houses or machine tools ? Is it people who have contributed money or collections? If so, recently or in the past?

If I hop on the Interstate and drive 2 and 1/4 hours south, I can park at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the "big" museum that is closest to my home in Vermont. Am I part of its community? Or are the residents of Boston? The university students or school children who live nearby? Or is the US or world its community? Or all of the above?

There is no essential answer to the question of which community a museum serves. Likewise, there is no museum which serves all communities. It seems to me that the primary obligation of any museum -- like any institution -- is to define its "target market" (its audience and supporters). Specifying the target market is step one in the mission-writing process.

Harold Skramsted, President Emeritus, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, makes an interesting argument for ithis point in his article Museums and Communities: What Does It All Mean? (page 4) Skramsted suggests that the word "community" is no longer valid, because communities in contemporary America are no longer "communities of need" but rather "communities of choice". Most people today live in a world of overlapping communities. Museums, taking this fact into account, need to shift their focus from serving a community to listening and responding to various communities. Museums need to establish what Skramsted calls their "gyroscope", by writing a mission in which they to set the limits to whom you can listen to and what you can respond to. To set the gyrospope, a museum must the following questions:

1) What is your mission: What is your distinctive and special role and why should anyone care?
2) What is your vision: Where do you want to be at a specific time in the future if you follow your mission?
3) What are your key strategies: How will you get there?


It is only through listening to various communities, that it is possible for museums to connect deeply to the world and thereby serve the people who may become their audience and supporters.

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