Contemporary Philosopher Peter Singer at the MIT Veritas Forum. Photo Credit: Joel Travis Sage
Bill Gates, philanthropist and technology pioneer. Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson

Proving the Point, What Makes a Museum Good?

Given that the year is now 2014, why is it acceptable for museums to tolerate such a lack of evidence for why we matter to the world around us? According to the American Alliance of Museums, the museum sector contributes $21 billion to the US Economy every year. Considering that robust number, doesn’t it seem strange that we still have difficulty putting our finger on the data that explains what important outcomes result from those efforts?

The evidence is out there

While the important impacts sought by museums are more difficult to observe and record than simply billions served or dollars at the till, the difficulty of the process does not excuse us from understanding how and why we make (or fail to make) a difference. As non-profits, museums are red-ink businesses with our most important outcomes often not well reflected in our financial bottom line. Unlike the corporate sector, museums that succeed financially may be just as likely to fail in generating meaningful impact as their cash-strapped counterparts. While the healthcare sector can count the number of lives they save, counting the number of lives changed by museums is a different task entirely.

We need culture to solve global problems

To be sure, issues of global poverty, chronic disease, human trafficking, and climate change are just a few of the serious challenges to our generation. The need for new solutions to these problems is ever-present. Spend long enough making lists of these pressing issues and you could easily be persuaded that the arts aren’t worth your time and investment, but you’d be wrong.

Albert Einstein was a devoted musician in addition to his accomplishments in science. Photo Credit: Oren Jack Turner

A place for culture in the social framework of global communities

Putting aside for the moment the litany of global problems, we cannot neglect to consider the human framework these problems reside in and the dramatic ways in which it is changing. Driven in part by the pace of global population growth, a report from the Guardian’s Cities project tells us that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban area. (Guardian, 2014) To reach that place, a city of one million people will be built each week from now until that date.

The Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area recorded the largest population increase in the nation from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2012, adding 131,879 people for a total population of 6.7M, according to U.S. Census Bureau (March 14, 2013). Flickr Credit ~Daxis
Jane Addams (second from the left) aboard the MC Noordam with other delegates to the 1915 Women’s Peace Conference in the Hague.

Creating a Better Community

Many of you reading this article will bring with you first-hand experience for the way that the arts can bridge cultural differences, but the cultural sector is still incredibly bad at making this case with data. Luckily a variety of recent studies have shown how arts participation can result in increased altruism, tolerance of others, and increased civic engagement.

Putting the Muse in Museums

Let’s be clear, the evidence that museum participation can result in significant and tangible benefit to society is present and well documented. Still when compared to other non-profit sectors, the cultural sector is not doing a good job of making the case. Compared to curing blindness, or saving babies, we would have a tough time convincing the Peter Singers or Bill Gates of the world that investing in museums is worth their money.

Students observing the Jim Hodges exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art

“Beauty is an ecstasy, it is as simple as hunger.” — Somerset Maugham

Sheaves of Wheat Vincent van Gogh July 1890 Dallas Museum of Art
Ben and his mom at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo credit: WFAA

CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse


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    Deputy Director, Dallas Museum of Art Technologist, Coffee Lover, Dad, and Jazz Geek

    CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

    An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse