Museum Methods museum is usually a non-profit organization with intent to provide education and enlightenment by the organized collection, preservation, interpretation and exhibit of items deemed to be of interest to the public or community. Historically, museums have evolved as collaborative projects to house collected works gathered for the appreciation of the current and future generations in our society. However, such definitions cannot be regarded as the last word on the definition of the term 'museum', for the same definitions could be applied to such institutions as zoos, arboretums, nature centers, visitor centers, historical places and planetariums. In short, the museum concept remains hard to pin down:
Museums are more than the repositories of the past, with memories and objects both rare and beautiful. Museums are cultural, educational, and civic centers in our communities - centers for exhibition, conservation, research, and interpretation; they are theaters and movie houses, job-training programs, schools and day-care centers, libraries and concert halls (Pitman, 1).
As this statement from Bonnie Pitman suggests, a wide range of definitions exists for what museums are and what they do. Most definitions include the permanent preservation and public display of significant cultural, educational, scientific and artistic objects. In particular, public perceptions of museums have tended to focus on their role as repositories and showcases for the latter; as Harold Skramstad has commented, 'When journalists and others outside the museum field speak of "museums," they are generally referring to art museums' (Skramstad, 111). As a definition of a museum's purpose, however, this is very vague, given that the definition of art is so loosely translated in our culture. A more precise definition might be found in consideration of the fact that conservation and collection is usually a requirement in defining the measure of a museum - a definition that raises the question of methodology as much as purpose.
The International Council of Museums follows this model in the standards it applies to the organizational structure, responsibilities, classification and research that form the science of museology and the discipline of museography - the techniques that are used in the operation and practice of museum science. This approach can be viewed as a starting point in defining the categorization of museums, but boundaries still remain blurred and controversy continues both within the museum professional and in wider society on the classifications of museum types.
One way out of this problem is to define anything as a museum that calls itself a museum. The wide applicability of the term in this sense is reflected in the fact that in our modern world, many people with individual collections of personal interest have established institution they refer to as museums. These museums are compilations of thematic objects that are offered by individuals seeking approval and admiration from the public for the displayed works. With an endless array of thematic museums in almost every city, collections representing most hobbies and topics have placed the term museum on private institutions involving object accumulation and presentation. This use of the term 'museum' in some ways harks back to the origin of the modern museum in the 'cabinets of curiosities' and personal collections of the eighteenth century (Spalding, 38), but in today's context I question the use of the term represented by a private doll collection being referred to as a 'doll museum.' To give another example, having traveled through South Dakota this past summer, I noted references to the Cornhusk Temple and Museum on the tourist maps. Although many cornhusk artisans enjoy the use of vegetable remains in their leisure pursuit, I fail to see the connection between a hobby and an appropriate use of the term 'museum.' I lean toward a less liberal, more culturally conservative belief that museums require a more traditional approach to continue to serve society with higher standards and dignity.
An analysis of two important strands in museum displays, anthropology and natural history, sheds some light on the issue of the relationship between the preservation and expansion of knowledge and the need for public display and entertainment in museological methods and approaches. Noting the differences between natural history and anthropology is important in museum science. Natural history could be defined the systematic and organized account of natural phenomena. Anthropology is division of social science that focuses on the study of human beings, including the evolution and social relationships of humans. Human evolution is a natural phenomenon and therefore the subjects overlap in a distinguishable area of interrelated content. Fossilized hominid remains would be appropriately displayed in either a museum of natural history or a museum of anthropology. The interpretation of archaeological artifacts and the prehistoric botanical evidence that links the early man with biology and nature are related subjects that could easily share an exhibit hall. The presentation of an exhibit of anthropological and cultural significance and a natural history exhibit have an overlapping relationship that is often compatible in a single museum setting. If a display depicting the cornhusk temple were displayed in the same hall as a tribute to use of plants in architecture, the focus would be lost.
An example of a museum with a clear commitment to high standards of ethics and cultural and scientific values which embodies the maintenance of focus in the construction and presentation of its exhibits is the Florida Museum of Natural history in Gainesville, which is affiliated with the University of Florida, Gainesville. The study and research conducted by the museum extends through the state, governing any anthropological finds and any significant fossilized remains from vertebrate species found within the state. The institution has legislative support in the preservation of these items of relative interest to the public. The museum maintains the highest level of standards in providing educational exhibits and continues to expand on the displayed works with a concise mission. Academic research is paramount to the institution's plan and it therefore draws exceptional research candidates to support the museum's interests. This emphasis on academic activities, and the integration of the museum's research with the educational and scientific work of the University of Florida, exists side-by-side with a concern to involve the public in the creation of the exhibitions that form the public face of the museum, as in the 'Northwest Florida: Waterways and Wildlife' exhibit opened in 2000, which involved public participation in the re-creation of a riverine landscape (Florida Museum of Natural History web site).
Art museums would seem to have a different mission to that of natural history and anthropology museums. The definition of art is highly debated and even when it is agreed upon, art is still highly subjective, interpreted uniquely by each person. Critically acclaimed work as judged by one expert might be labeled appalling by a second professional opinion. Nearly every person polled sums up the arts differently. Art encompasses material arts and performing arts and the range of topics included is very wide. The following is a partial list of art forms obtained from the electronic resources at Hyperdictionary.com:
This list is offered to convey the wide span of artistic interpretation in our modern culture. I have never been a fan of the collections displayed by museums with modern 'art form' themes. The Smithsonian is highly regarded as a museum but the collections of modern useful items do not hold my interest. Exhibits dedicated to the presentation of nostalgic Americana and retrospective cultural anthropology may be considered a valid museum collection by some opinion. I find it similar to walking through a shopping mall, devoid of any true cultural enrichment. That is simple opinion not a statement based in fact. Many small museums do not house elite works of art, presenting collections in specialized subjects that appeal to the founding collector.
My own studies of the concepts and terminologies of museology and museum science have tended to support my conservative point-of-view on the role of the museum. Art objects and museum objects both place different values on physical works of interest. An art object is of aesthetic interest to the public. Most works of art can be attributed as works created by a person with intrinsic value. Artifacts usually convey a cultural significance related to human cultural growth. In these cases a museum must relate its activities to the higher social and cultural purposes of understanding rather than basing its appeal on individual interests or the peculiarity of particular pursuits. In my personal opinion, exhibits can be defined as planned presentations with the intent to display organized collected works for public viewing. The application of this term should be reserved to describe educational, culturally significant and scientific works. The American Association of Museums, (AAM) defines a…