25.Jan.2009 Museum: shrine to the muses

This post is in response to Koven Smith’s blog post entitled, “What’s the most important function of museums?” and this video posted by the Museum Association.

Koven’s answer was “to provide a stage upon which a multiplicity of interactions can occur” and he echoed the answer that Jeffrey Inscho from the Mattress Factory gave, “to provide more questions than answers.”  While I do think that a museum can and should act as a “stage” for many types of interactions and I do think that a museum should raise questions within a visitor or a population I do not think that either of these are the primary function of a museum.

I guess my biggest issue with Koven’s answer is that pretty much any place can be a “stage” for different interactions–a coffee shop, a sidewalk, Home Depot, a museum.  I feel that this answer says that a museum is just a place where stuff can happen–a venue for interaction–which to me means that anyplace could be a museum.  What is it about a museum that differentiates it from a coffee shop or a Home Depot?  Some might say, “nothing,” but then why even give anything a name or a label.

My issue with Jeffrey’s answer is that questions and answers are so black and white.  A question asks about what you don’t know.  An answer tells you what you don’t know. (Also, why more questions than answers?  Why not just “to provide questions and answers” and leave the count to a case by case basis?)  Maybe I’m being too literal with this answer but shouldn’t museums stimulate more than (A) questions and (B) answers?

Why can’t a museum’s primary function be to stimulate thought and inspiration from art and science?  It’s all within the root of the word: muse.  A muse causes you to think or inspires you.  In Greek mythology the Muses are the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, “each of whom presided over a different art or science.”  Museums should be shrines to those things in the arts and sciences that cause inspiration or thought.  I’m not saying that the only way for someone to be inspired by the art is to see the “real” art.  People find inspiration in different ways.  Some are inspired the moment they see something and don’t need to understand the history or process that led to that particular work of art.  Others might find something bland and interesting until they learn about the artist and the process is what inspires them.

Let me stress that I’m in no way saying that this inspiration can only come from a physical interaction with the work of art itself but rather that it can happen anywhere the museum chooses to be–online, print, film, etc.  A museum should be an entity that protects and displays (through many channels) the things that stimulate thought and inspiration.

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