Matagorda County Museum Our Blog How to Be an Inspirational Museum

How to Be an Inspirational Museum

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A museum is an institution devoted to preserving and interpreting primary tangible evidence of humankind and its environment. It differs from the library, with which it has often been compared, in that its collections are unique and communicate a specific message or meaning to visitors.

Museums come in many forms and serve a broad range of purposes, from recreation to scholarly venues; as economic engines; as cultural ambassadors; or even as vehicles for overtly ideological concepts. They can be hushed halls with revered words of art or noisy centers filled with children running hither and yon. They can exhibit collections of shattered glass or rare plants, or they can display ancient tools and weapons of war.

Despite this diversity, all museums share a common goal. Their founders saw them as a way to preserve and share their passion about a topic, which is why museum-goers see them as places of inspiration. Those museums that want to be seen as inspirational, however, need to do a lot more work. The good news is that there are plenty of tools available to help them do this.

The most important of these is a clear understanding of what a museum is. Many major professional organizations offer definitions of the term. These vary in focus and emphasis, but they all emphasize the public good and the collection and preservation of items of historical significance.

Museums also have to be able to communicate their meaning and value to their audiences in ways that are compelling and accessible. Increasingly, research in museum audience studies has shown that visitors seek a wide variety of experiences when they visit museums. Some seek to be inspired, and a growing body of research shows that this is possible in museums that have become serious about independent learning, deep audience engagement, and participation. John Falk has outlined a number of different identities that museums can encourage in their visitors, from facilitators (those who enjoy the museum through the experience of introducing children or guests to it) to explorers (those who seek out whatever grabs them).

Another key element is that museums must be able to demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities. Museums are increasingly being asked to take on economic development and rejuvenation roles in their cities, a role that goes well beyond simply generating income from ticket sales. Museums are being asked to invest in the infrastructure of their cities, provide cultural amenities that bring people into the city center, and promote local identity through their collections and programs.

Lastly, museums must be able to manage their operations. They must be able to finance their operations, maintain and enhance their collections, ensure that their staff is trained and competent, and deal with an ever-changing public. This requires a great deal of planning and forethought to avoid the pitfalls that have ruined so many museums in the past.

This is a complicated task, but one that is worth undertaking. Many adults avoid museums because they see them as stuffy and educational, and many museums don’t brand themselves as educational institutions. But if museums are to continue to play a vital role in our lives, they must show adults that education doesn’t have to be boring or restrictive and show how their collections can teach us about all aspects of our culture.