Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Inspirational Role of Museums

The Inspirational Role of Museums

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A museum is a public institution that collects, cares for, conserves and interprets objects related to human history and culture. Museums serve many different purposes, ranging from being recreational facilities to scholarly venues or educational resources, from community outreach to promoting civic pride and nationalistic endeavour. Museums are found in a wide variety of formats and locations, reflecting a remarkably diverse cultural landscape that has evolved from an apparently innate desire to record our world and the history that surrounds us.

While many museums focus on arts and cultural heritage, others offer a more scientific experience, whether by way of natural science or technology centres, or by addressing issues of sustainability or globalisation through exhibitions of fashion, textiles or design. Still more have a religious or spiritual focus, or are dedicated to a particular political cause. All of these institutions have something in common: they are designed to evoke awe or inspiration from their visitors.

For museums to fulfill their inspirational role, they must be more than places that house collections of artifacts or treasures. A growing body of research into museum audiences suggests that people seek out a range of experiences and uses for museums, sometimes in the same visit. John Falk has developed a methodology for describing visitors by the identities they assume: from facilitators who enjoy a museum through introducing others to it, to explorers who are looking for whatever grabs them. Susie Wilkening and James Chung, in their book Life Stages of the Museum Visitor, describe similar findings.

Despite their inspirational potential, some museums struggle to meet this challenge, especially as they strive to become more contemporary and relevant in the lives of their visitors. In recent years, museums have been moving away from a didactic approach to education in favour of one that is more collaborative and participative. This is a challenging trend that must be addressed by a number of different actors, including schools and the museums themselves.

Many adults still see museums as being too school-like or childish, and avoid visiting them. For them, the word museum may bring to mind an image of a dusty repository of antiquities. Museums need to do more than just try to make themselves more appealing to adult visitors; they must show them that education doesn’t have to be boring or didactic, and show how museums can promote a broader approach to learning that is more inclusive and less hierarchical.

As the emphases on inclusivity and participation continue to evolve in our society, so too will the concept of the museum. The new definition, which will be voted on at the next Ordinary General Assembly, is a step in this direction. It is important that the process continues in a spirit of collaboration and consensus. Museums need the support of their communities to survive and thrive in this new age. This is what makes them a unique, and essential, part of the fabric of our world.