On the Public and Museums

“On the Public and Museums” is the first installment of a broader project with the goal of finding and discussing the practical applications for the museum theory I’m learning while studying Public Humanities at Brown University. I hope this translation will be helpful for museum professionals and interested laypeople who may not have the opportunity that I currently do to really delve into museum theory. These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Brown University or the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

I want to confidently say that museums are the perfect example of a public space. Museums are environments where communities gather and freely exchange ideas inspired by what is in the museum and also related to larger issues plaguing the world. Everyone is welcome here and everyone feels welcome here. However, this museum is not a reality for many institutions. A look at the museum sector’s track record shows that there are a number of barriers preventing museums from truly being public spaces. How do we go about changing this? How can museums become public spaces?

It seems like the obvious first step is to examine who a museum’s public is. Who (or what) are we defining as the public? Who do we envision walking through our doors? Is the museum for everyone or just a select few? Who gets to participate in the public space? Feel free to substitute your favorite museum buzzword in place of public — community, audience, visitorship, etc.

In his article Public and Counterpublics, Michael Warner suggests that a public is a gathering of people created by them simply paying attention to something. Surely, this definition can be applied in a museum setting. However, I feel like this definition of public feels too unspecific and overgeneralizes the public. In her book, Museums and the Public Sphere, Jennifer Barrett suggests that we should refer to the public as publics in order to a) avoid erasing people’s unique identities by lumping them into one homogenous group and b) recognize that people’s unique identities influence how they interact with a museum. I like the idea of referring to the public as publics (I think it gives people agency) but this raises another issue. Is it even possible for a museum to try to create a public space that is accessible to and for ALL of the publics? Especially since publics are forever changing and new publics are constantly being created, it seems unlikely that any museum will ever have the capacity to keep up.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to clearly define what I mean when I say public. I am inclined though to recommend that a museum think about its local community first when trying to define who their public is. Start local and work on welcoming in who lives by you, and then start scaling up and welcoming other publics. Start collaborating with and listening to your local community. Creating the museum they want to see in partnership with them will likely make the museum a more public space.

I do have a better handle on what museums can do to be more welcoming public spaces. Democratizing the museum is important; recognize that it is okay for the museum to shed some of the responsibility of being a single authority figure and let people interpret things for themselves. However, we also need to recognize that museums have a lot of influence over people’s thoughts and opinions. Because of this, it is important for museums to not be neutral in the message they communicate. Museums should not be static; institutions should be open to new ideas, interpretations, and rewritings of history and not be afraid to change if needed. And lastly, museums should often be collaborating with their publics. Hilde Hein suggests in her book “Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently” that museums need to place more value on their publics rather than their objects. I’m not suggesting that museums stop caring for the objects they preserve, but rather recognize that the objects on display are given meaning by the people that interact with them. While this may not be a comprehensive list on how to be a public space, my intention is that museums can begin to think about what they can change in order to truly be a public space.

This post was inspired by the following readings:

Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, and Frank Lennox. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964).” New German Critique 3, no. Autumn (1974): 49–55. doi:10.2307/487737.

Hein, Hilde. Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2006.

Mullen, Mary. “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem.” Cultural Studies, November 2014, 1–22. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014 .978802.

Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, no. 4 (November 2002): 413–425.

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