AAM Conference Dispatch

Recently, the Burke opened a new exhibit, “Imagine That”(http://www.burkemuseum.org/imagine). It shows off the collections and turns a public eye into the deepest recesses of the Museum. It’s not just the Burke Museum that’s doing this, though—American museums as a whole are starting to turn themselves “inside out”, for a number of reasons, including:

– to increase relevance of collections process for visitors and supporters,

– to help museumgoers learn about how science works,

– in some cases, to engage the public in a dialogue about the museum itself.

This past week, I had the good fortune to attend the American Alliance of Museums conference in our fair city, and there’s been a definite shift in how professionals approach the museum.The current view of many museum professionals is summed up by Kathleen McLean, who argues that museums should be good neighbors in the communities in which they operate. Museums have to find out what their community wants: they should ride the bus, hold potlucks at the museum, coordinate with groups in the surrounding area. “Why can’t a museum be like a coffee shop?” McLean asks, and why can’t a museum offer up its spaces as community gathering points?

Not only is this topic relevant to museum-marauding archaeologists, I think it’s interesting how analogous this discussion is to the one that is currently happening in archaeology. How do we open  archaeology up to a variety of ways of knowing? How do we crack open these hallowed spaces? How do we fight against (or work with) those academics and museum professionals who would prefer to maintain their distance from a world full of different ways to know?

I’m interested in hearing about what people think caused this sea change in the way we think about museums and social sciences.

[I may not be able to participate in the discussion for a while, but I’d still like to know!]

2 thoughts on “AAM Conference Dispatch

  1. While the ultimate causes of increasingly community-orientated exhibits and archaeology projects no doubt stem from broader societal and academic shifts (decline of positivism, feminist critiques of science, post-colonial discourse, etc.), “Imagine That” -type projects also strike me as museums and other public institutions’ response to the current economic situation. With legislators questioning the relevance of many social sciences and humanities, we have been put on the defensive as to why our work is valuable (Rosemary Joyce’s response to Eric Cantor on why we should fund archaeological studies comes to mind http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2013/10/01/why-fund-studies-of-maya-architecture-instead-of-saving-lives/). Ensuring the viability of our disciplines long-term requires establishing connections with the general public, who in turn will advocate for us with their votes and checkbooks. This isn’t to say that museums like the Burke are just paying lip-service to community engagement and alternative sources of knowledge (I don’t think they are), but that “Imagine That” and similar projects are, I think, survival strategies within an increasingly hostile political climate.

  2. I’ve heard a lot of good and bad things about the “Imagine That” exhibit and though I understand the topic of the post isn’t necessarily about the exhibit it bears to mention. On the positive museums should strive to be as open to the public as possible to attract an audience and not be “in the ivory tower” as many researchers are stereotyped to be in. According to the Harris Poll (which I’m going out on a limb and assuming many in this class have already read but if not:http://www.nps.gov/archeology/PUBS/Harris/index.htm) people ARE interested in archaeology, just not going to museums to contribute to their learning often. Opening up the museum as a community gathering point would be a boon to collections and attendance but would they be going for the socializing or for the museum collections?

    However with the “casual” side perhaps we lose interest in the deeper meanings that museums may hold for an audience. One main complaint of the exhibit of the Burke is that it threw together a collection that had no rhyme or reason, no background or history to the items chosen to represent what an inside of a museum is like. If we create a “community” space will the items inside lose their historical context. I personally believe that it’s a delicate line to balance but certainly being more open with the public is a step in the right direction.

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