An Agenda for American Museums
in the Twenty-First Century
E LIVE IN A CONTRADICTORY TIME. While Americans are increasingly impatient with any limitation on their individual rights, and loyalty to institutions such as the church, school, and community has been deeply eroded, they continue to seek out groups and institutions that can offer order, authority, and criteria that go beyond the imperatives of individualism. Those institutions that are able to recognize this contradiction and can help us find the required balance between our need for freedom and our need for authority are those that will be most successful in the next century.
One institution that is actively seeking that new balance is the American museum. Museums have helped shape the American experience in the past, and they have the potential to play an even more aggressive role in shaping American life in the future. They offer a powerful educational model that can help redesign and reform American education, and they can be important centers of community development and renewal. However, to accomplish these two things, museums must engage the world with a spirit of activism and openness far beyond what they are used to. They will have to reexamine and rethink some of the most fundamental assumptions they hold about what they do and how they do it. They will also have to reclaim the sense of bold entrepreneurship and experimentation that characterized the earliest days of the museum movement in America.
Museums came early to America, and the story of America's first museums is one of lively entrepreneurship combined with a strong sense of educational purpose. In a nation characterized by Daniel J. Boorstin as creating and recreating new, transient, "upstart," communities, most museums were formed as voluntary associations that brought together civic boosters in an eclectic mix of collecting, education, and entertainment activities. Museums, like other community institutions such as colleges and universities, theaters and opera houses, were often built and in business before roads were named or paved. They functioned to anchor and stretch the communities for which they were created. Characteristic of these museum enterprises was a practical bias toward community values and a governance structure that reflected a blurring of private and public spheres.
If there was a distinguishing feature of American museums from the outset, it was their diversity. They might focus on one particular area such as art, history, science, or archaeology, or they might take a mixture of subjects, each represented by a mass of collection materials. One of the earliest museums in America was the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, established by Charles Wilson Peale in 1786. Peale saw his museum as a commercial as well as an educational undertaking; he understood the need to connect his content to his audience's interests in a lively manner if he expected them to pay the admission fees that his museum required for its operation. Peale's museum was characteristic of a genre that saw its collections as representing the entire world. Its collections grew to over one hundred thousand specimens, collected and exhibited with two purposes in mind ? to entertain and to educate. It is important to remember that early museums such as Peale's developed long before universal public schooling became common; they, along with the church and the library, were important institutions concerned with public education.
If we look at the history of nineteenth-century American museums, we find again and again bold and diverse patterns of museum development carried out against a backdrop of a society hungry for information and knowledge but wanting to get it in a digestible form. One of the most successful early museum pioneers was P. T. Barnum, whose American Museum was founded in New York City in 1841. Barnum's museum provides us with a vivid example of educational entrepreneurship. Materials from around the world were presented in displays designed to blend education and entertainment. Barnum's intent was to create a personal experience of exoticism and wonder. Visitors to his museum were stimulated by the displays to learn and to enjoy themselves in the process. They were comfortable in knowing they were in a place where discovery, dialogue, and conversation were encouraged. They took pleasure in uncovering and trying to discover for themselves whether the material on display was real or not, as Barnum was well known for his staging of elaborate hoaxes to boost attendance. In capitalizing on Americans' almost insatiable desire for knowledge, Barnum understood instinctively that learning and entertainment could exist comfortably in a museum setting. In this he was a genuine museum pioneer.
Later in the century, as cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit became dominant centers of commerce, one of the strategies for displaying their economic and cultural power was the creation of large art museums. Because of their size, scale, and social prominence, these art museums came to dominate the cultural assumptions about museums for the next century and to establish a new, more conservative model for museum creation. Most were founded with governance and operating structures that made them less dependent on earned admissions from the visiting public than the earlier museums, such as those of Peale and Barnum, had been. They depended instead on private subsidies by wealthy patrons for much of their financial support. Their founding missions combined the inspirational and the practical: to educate and uplift the public and to improve the skills and taste of those who worked with their hands. The founding patrons of such museums recognized that museums, like libraries, universities, and symphony orchestras, were prudent investments in both social control and civic pride, essential ingredients in the growth and success of America's emerging industrial cities.
Building the collections of these museums fell to a new group of America's business and civic leaders. Their rapidly growing wealth, created by the vast economic expansion of the American economy, meant they were able to accumulate masterpieces of the artistic and cultural patrimony of Europe and the Orient, and these treasures began to find a permanent home in America's museums. As a result, museums began to focus less on the care of audiences and more on the care of their valuable and quickly expanding collections. The result was a gradual yet profound culture change as museums shifted the direction of their energies from public education and inspiration toward self generated, internal, professional, and academic goals. Museums began to see their primary intellectual and cultural authority coming from their collections rather than their educational and community purpose. The great art museums of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit set the dominant tone of this inward movement of museum culture. They were the recipients of many of the artistic masterpieces collected by wealthy Americans. The visibility of their museum collections and exhibitions was symbolic of America's need to prove that American museums could and would reach a quality and scale equal to any in the world.
Because of their visibility as symbols of civic pride, art museums defined the popular perception of a "museum." Once seen as a place of curiosity, wonder, and delight, the "museum" became associated with quiet galleries where artistic treasures were displayed for contemplation. This perception remains today. When journalists and others outside the museum field speak of "museums," they are generally referring to art museums. It was art museums that first saw themselves as preservers of rare and beautiful objects of intrinsic value, and their view of collecting has subsequently shaped the collections of many non-art museums. Until relatively recently, history museums have tended to collect examples of rare and beautiful objects from the past rather than those most characteristic or emblematic of the historical period or locale that was their focus. The word "museum quality" is taken from the culture of art museums and assumes aesthetic quality rather than appropriateness of historical or scientific context.
The great success of the American public education system in the nineteenth century also worked to strengthen the trend among museums to focus inwardly on the study and display of their collections. As schools began to take on the role of the monopoly providers of public education, the public education role of museums received less attention. By the first decade of the twentieth century what had too often disappeared from museum culture was a concern about education and respect for the public audience. The expansion of knowledge through museum collecting was now considered by museums to be the primary focus of their work. The more knowledge that was accumulated through museum collections, the more useful that knowledge would be. It was no longer necessary for the museum to be a missionary force on behalf of popular education; rather, it would be a preserver and protector of the rare, the unique, the beautiful, and the special in the arts, the humanities, and the sciences.
There were many in the museum field who expressed concern about this inward-moving perspective. Among many there remained a belief that museums and museum exhibitions had the power to create memorable experiences that could stimulate and inspire people, especially the young. One of the most articulate proponents of this point of view was the aviation pioneer Samuel P. Langley, who was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at the turn of the century. Soon after assuming his position, he became concerned that the Smithsonian was doing little to address the educational needs of children who did not understand the arcane labels of the natural history displays designed by scholars. To solve the problem he appointed himself as Honorary Curator of a new "Children's Room" with instructions "to see that a room was reserved and properly prepared for such things as little people most want to know." In a letter to himself accepting the position, Langley wrote:"The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has been pleased to confer upon me the honorable but arduous duties of the care of the Children's Room. He has at his service so many men learned in natural history that I do not know why he has chosen me, who knows so little about it, unless perhaps it's because these gentlemen may possibly not be also learned in the ways of children, for whom this little room is meant.In this letter Langley reveals an instinctive understanding of the educational power of museums and the degree to which that power is dependent on museum leaders' understanding of both their subject and their audience.
"It has been my purpose to deserve his confidence, and to carry out what I believe to be his intention, by identifying myself with the interests of my young clients. Speaking, therefore, in their behalf, and as one of them, I should say that we never have a fair chance in museums. We cannot see the things on the top shelves, which only grown-up people are tall enough to look into, and most of the things we can see and would like to know about have Latin words on them, which we cannot understand: some things we do not care for at all, and other things which look entertaining have nothing on them to tell us what they are about....
"We think there is nothing in the world more entertaining than birds, animals, and live things; and next to these is our interest in the same things, even though they are not alive; and next to this is to read about them. All of us care about them and some of us hope to care for them all our lives long. We are not very much interested in the Latin names, and however much they may mean to grown-up people, we do not want to have our entertainment spoiled by its being made a lesson." 1
An important critique of the inward-moving trend in American museums appeared in a study done by Laurence Vail Coleman, commissioned by the American Association of Museums and published by the Association in 1939 as The Museum in America: A Critical Study. In his three-volume study, Coleman reminded museum workers that in America, "the museum, like the library, is a community enterprise in its very nature." He went on to criticize American museums as a "group of air-tight compartments" in which the "Instructors... are buffers between the public and the curatorial group that wants to be left alone. In large museums the instructors are gathered to a 'department of education' (named as though other departments might be dedicated to unenlightenment), and headed by a 'curator of education' (titled as though he had to take care of the stuff lest some of it get away)," Coleman's report remains an extremely insightful but too little-read or utilized artifact of American museum history.
The founders of America's first industrial museums, Julius Rosenwald and Henry Ford, provided another important counterforce to this inward focus among museums. Developed in the 1930s, Rosenwald's Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and Ford's Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan, were driven by a strong sense of social purpose. The goal of their museums was to bring people into contact with new, educational, and potentially inspiring experiences. In describing his vision for the Museum of Science and Industry, Rosenwald argued:"In an industrial center like Chicago there ought to be a permanent exhibit for the entertainment and instruction of the people; a place where workers in technical trades, students, engineers, and scientists might have an opportunity to enlarge their vision; to gain a better understanding of their own problems by contact with actual machinery, and by quiet examination in leisure hours of working models of apparatus; or, perhaps to make new contributions to the world's welfare through helpful inventions. The stimulating influence of such an exhibit upon the growing youth of the city needs only to be mentioned." 2This new type of museum was to be primarily a place of education, entertainment, and influence rather than research and scholarship. A formal, hands-on school was attached to Ford's museum; the experiences and artifacts in Rosenwald's Museum of Science and Industry would be chosen for their value in both entertaining and instructing its publics. For both men, the artifacts that formed their museum collections were of a different sort. Instead of focusing on the rare and the antiquarian, they focused on the vernacular and the everyday. Instead of focusing on artifacts that represented continuity, they focused on those that embodied and represented change. If original artifacts were not available, reproductions or models were commissioned. They created large and dramatic spaces and distinctive architecture to give a sense of theater and drama to the museum-going experience. Ford installed a dramatic eight-acre forest of technology behind a reproduction of the facade of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Rosenwald focused on the creation of a number of vivid and theatrical exhibitions.
While the public responded positively to these new kinds of museums, other museums generally did not. The dominant focus of museum culture for most of the twentieth century remained the accumulation and management of museum collections and the professionalization of museum workers and museum work. The positive results of this focus are undeniable, indeed amazing. Extraordinary advances have been made in the building of new museum collections, the efficient management of existing collections, and the systematic study of those collections. Workers in the museum field have ceased to be seen as dilettantes or amateurs and are now for the most part well-educated and trained professionals. Yet this professionalism has too often widened the gap between museums and the publics who use and support them. Underlying much of contemporary museum culture is a fundamental belief that the collecting, research, and interpretation efforts of museums are intrinsic social goods and that members of the public who choose not to attend museum exhibitions and participate in museum programs do so because they are not quite up to the intellectual or aesthetic challenge. Museums have also increasingly adopted the conventions and privileges of academic culture, claiming the rights of academic freedom in both research and the production of museum exhibitions. In fact, in many museums the public is seen as a distraction from the study of the collection, the "real work" of the museum. The most cynical example of this is the way many museum professionals view "blockbuster" exhibitions. Blockbusters are often seen as little more than necessary pandering to the public rather than as opportunities to engage a broad audience in subjects and collections that in the long run benefit both the museum and the public.
Despite the inward focus that has dominated much of the museum culture during the twentieth century, there is no question that museums are almost universally acknowledged as an important part of the cultural landscape. The architecture of new museums has become an important source of civic pride and tourist dollars. Their collections have potency and their exhibitions are highly visible and can be important statements. For this reason, museums have begun to hear more clearly and bluntly from audiences that feel they have been either neglected or badly treated. These audiences are far more diverse and vocal than ever before in their expectations of museums. And because of their political power, they cannot be ignored. For example, when a broad coalition of American Indian groups objected that American museums were housing and studying the remains of their ancestors in a way that conflicted with their own beliefs, they forced federal legislation that gave hegemony to Indian values over museum collecting and research values.
Other groups have begun to look to museums to legitimize and validate their special claims or grievances and have found to their dismay and anger that their accomplishments and struggles are undocumented in museum collections and remain neglected in museum exhibitions and scholarship. Their response has often been to start their own museums so that their interests will not be diluted in the interests or purposes of larger museums. The continuing plethora of new museums (it is estimated that over one-half of the museums in America have been started since 1960) reminds us all that museum founding continues to be an important activity in the building of American communities. The extraordinary proliferation of these special-purpose museums, many of them focused around the history and story of a particular subject, community, or special interest group, is a vital sign of strength in the American museum movement.
THE MUSEUM AS A NEW EDUCATIONAL MODEL
Imagine the prototypical elementary school of the twenty-first century. It is an educational environment in which young children come together to learn about real subject-matter content and to develop critical thinking skills. They work with the real things and ideas of science, art, and the humanities. They work in a setting of participatory learning, led and mentored by adults who are themselves skilled practitioners of the particular craft or discipline the children are learning. The work is rigorous, involving projects that require team-based inquiry and demanding a variety of complementary learning skills. The rewards come in the form of recognition of the individual intellectual and emotional strengths of the learners as well as recognition of the strength of the working teams. All of the activities undertaken require basic skills in thoughtful and critical reading, analytical thinking, problem solving, clear writing, and computer understanding. The measurement of learning comes in a variety of forms, including standardized tests, teacher assessment, and student self-assessment.
Although this schooling model is rare today, it describes very closely the kind of learning that goes on presently in many American museums, especially children's museums and science and technology centers. These new types of museums developed out of community concerns that more traditional, collection-focused museums were not meeting the learning needs of their audiences. Most of these museums do not have large collections of objects, or if they do, the objects function as stimuli for the exploration and discovery of larger ideas or concepts, not as icons in themselves. During the past several decades, these two classes of museums have been great pioneers in improving the process of learning by the young. Their lead is now being followed by museums whose collections are rich in content and who have gained a renewed understanding of the potential of those collections as educational tools.
The museum educational model pioneered by children's museums and science and technology centers focuses on experiential and content-based problem solving activities working with the real objects of art, history, and science; on participatory, "hands-on" learning; on apprenticeship under the tutelage of people engaged in real-world intellectual activity; and on learning experiences designed to engage all the senses. Its emphasis on educational experiences that address the diverse learning styles of students could, with a relatively small investment, take place in every museum of reasonable size. This model recognizes that education in tomorrow's world needs to be truly different from what it is today. Even the most disadvantaged child now has access to an extraordinary range of experiences in a variety of media. To respond with an educational model designed for a motivated and compliant middle-class student for whom the traditional rigor and rote learning of the class-room is an accepted form of education just will not work.
Yet too often museums are dismissed as institutions of "informal" education, which is taken to mean a less important and less powerful form of education than traditional schooling. The formal educational potential of the museum has been undervalued and greatly underestimated. Some important experiments are already underway in this area. A number of museums have close partnerships with schools so that work and study projects in the museum and at school are seen as a seamless educational experience. At Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, a new public high school based on the theme of innovation and focused on the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is actually located in the museum. A very diverse student body, chosen by lot, uses all of the facilities of the museum as a giant learning classroom and laboratory. Standardized tests of these students have shown very positive results. In a very different setting, the American Museum of Natural History has developed an extraordinarily ambitious, $25 million national program to educate children and adults about science. It will do this by making the research and discovery process of the museum "transparent" through sophisticated electronic technology available both on-line and through a variety of hardware and software packages. As these and other museum educational models become more fully developed in a variety of settings, it will be important to test and compare outcomes with those of more traditional models of schooling.
But the museum model of education should not be limited to the younger years. Museums can and should provide educational experiences for adult learning that are just as powerful. In museums adults can learn at their own speed and in their own way in a setting that is multisensory and engages the emotions as well as the intellect. With no mandated curriculum, learners can organize themselves by almost any criteria of interests. The mixing of education, age, gender, and race can become a strong asset in a shared learning process. The museum can provide a place that encourages and enables intergenerational learning. The closely controlled environment of the school, open during very limited hours and not available to all members of a family or community-based group, cannot match the environment of the museum for encouraging groups of all kinds to learn together.
THE MUSEUM AS A MODEL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION
Museums in America have been and remain the creations of diverse and distinctive communities. The pattern of civic enterprise that has brought and continues to bring museums into being needs continual nurturing and development. The dominant governance model of museums, the independent nonprofit organization led by lay citizens in service of broad community objectives, can provide an important center of leadership in a community. Changes in a community may well mean the need to reexamine a museum's mission, goals, and strategies. It may also involve the need for changes in the bylaws and other forms of self-regulation by the organization. Museums offer in their organizational model ample room for either minor course correction or major change. If the governing authority of the museum is not able or willing to make the necessary changes in the museum's mission, direction, or strategies to meet community needs, there is a good possibility that another leadership group will organize to form a new museum with a new mission and direction that more directly meet those community needs. While this is often seen by established museums as a wasteful dilution of community resources and leadership, it remains a critical element in the process of museum and community renewal.
But just as important as the organizational model of the museum is its focus on real content. Many community-based organizations such as service clubs, community centers, and fraternal organizations focus on very practical issues ? i.e., how to solve a specific community problem. Other community-focused organizations, primarily social-service agencies, focus on how to deal with human problems at either the individual or the group level. These organizations must inevitably neglect what is even more important for any community ? its need to create and sustain successful human beings who are capable of integrating their own lives into larger traditions of civic responsibility. To do this requires institutions that go beyond the immediate and practical concerns of people's lives and communities. In a museum, content, made real by contact with objects, stories, ideas, and lives from the realms of science, art, and the humanities, can offer a gathering point for exploration of an inexhaustible store of topics. The museum is a place for tactile, emotional, and intellectual contact with people, ideas, or objects that have the potential to inspire. It is a place where people can meet and make friendships with others who share similar interests or where they can be a part of something larger and more important than their own individual lives. In order to develop the community potential of museums, museums have much work to do in developing new metaphors for their work that will emphasize their "care-giving" as well as their "collection-getting" focus.
THE MUSEUM AS A DESIGNER AND DELIVERER OF EXPERIENCES
Effective development of a much expanded educational and community role for museums in the next century will require museums to develop a much deeper competence in designing powerful and engaging educational experiences and delivering them to broad public audiences. More and more Americans expect that their social, economic, and cultural activities, though shaped by a variety of sources, will engage them in a way that is vivid, distinctive, and out of the ordinary. This is even more the case for children who are being brought up in a world of interactive media, which sets up new expectations of active participation. They expect to be treated as individuals who have a significant capacity to influence as well as be influenced by any experience in their lives. This means that in the world of the next century, these experiences will have to be developed with close interaction between their producers and their consumers. This interaction, and the resulting relationship of trust, is what increasingly will give authority to any experience. Organizations of all kinds, from theme parks to retail stores to restaurants, are beginning to structure their products and services in this way. The goals are always to make a connection with an audience, to establish a relationship of trust, and to cause some specific outcome, whether it be knowledge, fun, insight, or the purchase of a product or service. Museums need to recognize that they are in the experience business and that it is the distinctive theme, context, and value of the experiences they bring to a particular audience that will increasingly define their success.
There exists for museums great potential to orchestrate new and distinctive experiences that can give value to their audiences in a way that meets their individual needs. The key is that whatever is presented must offer an opportunity to go beyond passive learning to active involvement in the experience itself. This experiential dimension was a constant among the visionary and forward-thinking museums of the past. The displays in Barnum's American Museum were attempts to create an environment of the extraordinary, the wondrous, or the exotic. Langley's Children's Room at the Smithsonian was designed to inspire delight and discovery rather than convey specific information. The American museum experiences that are among the most memorable and influential tend to be those that are experientially rich, that have a sense of engagement, that have more similarity to a theatrical performance than a lesson plan. The pioneering dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History and other natural history museums, the planetarium as a new form of museum experience, the coal-mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, and the affecting exhibitions of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are examples of museum experiences that remain underutilized as models for future museum development. The producers of these museum experiences instinctively recognized that a museum's content or collections were not self-revealing guides to knowledge but were ingredients for the creation of special settings for undertaking exploration and discovery that acknowledged and respected the audiences' lives and experiences.
The refocused educational and community agenda for museums that I am advocating would make experience design and delivery central to the museum mission and would view artifacts and content as means rather than ends. It assumes that the content and collections are not the mission of the museum's work but powerful tools that enable it. It recognizes something that we all know through both common sense and research in museum learning: museums are not effective or efficient communicators of large amounts of information. People do not read very well standing up, and every study of the outcomes of museum experiences tells us that people remember very little of a museum's content. However, that same research reminds us that they do vividly remember museum experiences that somehow have a connection to their own lives. I am not suggesting here that museums create content to fit the needs of their audience, but rather that they create mission-related experiences to fit those needs.
Many museums recoil from this idea. The usual argument is that to focus on experience rather than on content is to pander to the audience and to attenuate the subtlety and nuance of what is being communicated. What is really being said in this argument is that the museum only wants to communicate to those people for whom nuance and subtlety will be an essential part of the experience. This is fine for internal discourse among professionals and connoisseurs but hardly acceptable for public museums. Experience design is a new and special skill, and it will be in great demand in the future. Museums need to better understand and develop this skill now, in collaboration with filmmakers, game creators, artists, poets, storytellers, and others who can bring necessary skills and talents to the process. In developing experiences, museums have an advantage over their competitors, whether they be electronic media, theme parks, or other entertainment venues. The real and authentic objects, stories, ideas, and lives that are the subject matter of museum experiences have a resonance that is more powerful than all but the most compelling imaginary experiences.
A focus on experience design and delivery will also allow museums to be more effective participants in the rapidly evolving field of cultural tourism. Travel and tourism are among the world's largest, most important, and fastest-growing industries. As tourism continues to rise, there will be an increased interest in what is unique and special about each tourist destination. Museums will be extremely important organizations in defining the specialness of a place, the "there" of a specific locale. Their ability to design and package powerful, content-rich tourist experiences will increasingly be critical not only to their educational success but to their economic success as well as the economic success of their communities.
A MODEL FOR SUCCESS
But more than conceptual and imaginative skills are required for museums to reach a central place in the American agenda. To become a forceful model for American education and a vital center for American communities, museums must develop three characteristics in their institutional culture in order to fully succeed. These characteristics are authority, connectedness, and trustworthiness.
Traditionally, museums have defined their authority primarily through the uniqueness of their collections and the special skills of their content specialists. Yet today all manner of resorts, hotels, casinos, restaurants, banks, and retail establishments have acquired collections of art and artifacts and engage in exhibitions and other collection and content-related activities that at one time would have been seen as the exclusive domain of museums. For example, the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants has an important collection of artifacts related to its "core" content consisting of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2, and Madonna. Its staff travels around the world soliciting donations and making purchases related to its "permanent" collection. Every artifact 10 be added to the Hard Rock Cafe's collection must be authenticated by a staff with special knowledge and training. And no artifact acquired for the core collection is ever sold. The recently opened Bellagio casino and resort in Las Vegas is developing heavily publicized art exhibitions from its own collections. The Rain Forest Cafe chain of restaurants has appropriated many of the elements of the interpretive programs of zoos. In each case, these commercial businesses have adopted the conventions of museum practice to lend a sense of deepened authenticity to their commercial experiences.
In addition to coming from the collections themselves, the authority of museums has come in large part from the larger and more transcendent ideas and values embodied in those collections and understood by traditional patrons, staffs, and audiences as intrinsically good and worthy of transmission to everyone without fear of controversy. More recently, museum exhibitions and other programs have become subject to increasingly sharp criticism from a variety of sources for a variety of reasons. This is not surprising. As museums engage the interest of more diverse and pluralistic audiences, they have become battlegrounds for larger cultural and historical debates. The contentiousness of the debate surrounding exhibitions mounted by institutions as varied as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of the City of New York are recent examples. The most well-publicized example in recent times was the debate surrounding a Smithsonian exhibition that focused on the decision of the U.S. government to drop the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. The curators of the exhibition did not fully understand the emotional issues that were at the root of the concern over their exhibition script, which questioned the need for dropping the bomb. The resulting controversy pitted the Smithsonian against a variety of outraged groups, some of which were both savvy and politically ruthless adversaries. The outcome, the canceling of the originally planned exhibition and the substitution of a much-simplified display, reflected badly on all parties to the debate. The lesson of this failed exhibition is that the development of the authority of museum exhibitions and experiences in the future will require continuous conversation and negotiation between museum staff with their specialized skills and knowledge and audiences now used to playing a more active role in the planning and development of the experiences in which they have an important stake. This is not to say that the skills of the specialist and the expert are no longer important in establishing the authority of a museum program or exhibition, but that a museum is not a university and that to expect audiences to yield to an absolute respect for and deference to the museum's cultural authority is no longer a reasonable expectation.
The controversy surrounding the Smithsonian exhibition on strategic bombing during World War II also evolved out of a lack of connectedness. Connectedness is nothing more than the process of a close, continuous, long-term connection between an organization and its audience. It is only through being connected to audiences in a close and continuous way that the museum will be trusted. In order to achieve connectedness in an ever more pluralistic society, both the governance and the staff makeup of American museums are going to have to become a lot more diverse. It will be impossible for museums to retain any sense of authority with the more pluralistic America outside museum walls unless there is diversity inside those walls. Connectedness also means that museums will have to master the skill of listening as well as the skill of talking ? that is, how to listen and what questions to ask. And, most importantly, they will need to know what to do in response to the listening. The process of systematically listening to consumers and potential consumers goes against the grain of traditional museum practice, which assumes that the museum is teacher and the audience is learner and that the museum cannot allow its audiences to play a role in defining its programs. But if the museum has defined its mission clearly and if this mission is connected to the value the museum can give to its audiences, this is a false concern. Increasingly, museum mission statements are going to have to contain not only a concise statement of what the museum does but also a description of the outcome of what it does and of the value of that outcome to the community it serves. If there is nothing special about its work, nothing that connects what it does to people's lives, then what is the point of its existing and who should care? If we look at the museums that are most successful in their ability to carry out their public missions, we see those that work hardest at carrying on a continuous conversation of mutual respect with their audiences.
Museums could learn much about trustworthiness from the business world. There is among the best companies an almost fanatical concern about "brand" and "brand management." The result of good brand development and management over a long period of time is that the consumer can reasonably expect that any product or service carrying that brand will live up to or exceed expectations. The product or service will be seen as trustworthy, even before it is experienced. It also means that from time to time a mistake or a poor product or service will be forgiven in the marketplace. However, a string of poor-quality or unresponsive products or services results in an erosion of trust. Once eroded, this trust is very difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild. Whether in the more traditional world of organizations or in the new world of electronic connectivity and e-commerce, people always seek information, knowledge, and insight from people and organizations they trust. This is why businesses invest so much time and money in establishing a "relationship" with consumers and potential consumers, and work so hard at making a commercial transaction an "experience" that is positive and memorable. Establishing a relationship of trust requires both a great deal of time and an attitude of mutual respect between the producer and consumer of a product or service. This is nothing new. Anthropologists remind us that in traditional societies, language was used less for communicating content than for establishing bonds of trust and understanding. It is only in modern societies that language is primarily used to communicate content, but at the risk of reducing the bonds of communication and trust. It is no different for museums. Trustworthiness and authority in a museum grow directly out of skill and expertise well exercised as well as out of continual connection to the audiences served. In the new world of the new century, the authority that a museum claims will be built not primarily through its collections nor on its specialized expertise, but through those resources engaged in conversation and dialogue with those audiences the museum serves. Relentless focus on establishing continuous and direct connection to the audience will, over a long period of time, result in the museum being seen as worthy of authority, affiliation, support, and trust.
As the distinctions between nonprofit and profit, education and entertainment, form and content, and product and service become less clear, our view of institutions will inevitably change. The ability of any institution to give meaning and value to people's personal and collective lives will take on even greater importance than it has today. This is why American museums have so much to offer American life. The great age of collection building in museums is over. Now is the time for the next great agenda of museum development in America. This agenda needs to take as its mission nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives. We have many practical institutions to help us work through our day-to-day problems. We have enough educational institutions that focus on training us to master the skills we need to graduate from school and get a job. Yet we have too few institutions that have as their goal to inspire and change us. American museums need to take this up as their new challenge. Up to now much of their time has been devoted to building their collections and sharing them through "outreach" to the larger world. Now they must help us create the new world of "inreach," in which people, young and old alike, can "reach in" to museums though experiences that will help give value and meaning to their own lives and at the same time stretch and enlarge their perceptions of the world. This will not be an easy task. It will require major changes in focus, organization, staffing, and funding for museums. But the potential benefit to America is tremendous. Working in partnership with each other and with their communities, America's museums remain one of America's best hopes for realizing the possibilities of the American future.
Harold Skramstad is president emeritus of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
1 Albert Bigelow Paine, "The Children's Room in the Smithsonian Institution," Smithsonian Institution Annual Report 1901 (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1901), 553-554.
2 Letter from Julius Rosenwald to Samuel Insull as quoted in Victor J. Danilov, "Science and Technology Museums Come of Age," Curator 16 (3) (1973): 30-46.
An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century is reprinted by permission of Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, from the issue entitled, "America's Museums," Summer, 1999, Vol. 128, No. 3.
© 1999, Daedalus, proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences - All Rights Reserved
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