What Do Museums Do?

More often than we’d like, people walk into the museum and have no idea what we do. That means we’re not doing a good job communicating what we do to the public or what we do is too complicated to easily explain. Likely, it’s a combination of both.

If we were to ask what a library does, most people would quickly be able to say that libraries let them take home books to read. While libraries have expanded what they provide due to the digital age, that’s still an accurate description of their primary function. It could be that this ubiquitous knowledge of a library’s mission comes from the library patron’s direct interaction with the process of checking out books. With a library card, every book is free to check out and can be kept for two or three weeks. Each time the book is picked up and perused, the library patron is reminded of where she got the book.

The underlying mission of a library is to share its collection to provide knowledge for the public good, although it might be difficult to get library patrons to express the mission in that particular way. The underlying mission of most museums is exactly the same. Our collections are meant to provide knowledge for the public good. It’s our range of collections and expression of that mission that confuse the matter.

Museums collect more than books. A local history museum, such as the Morrison County Historical Society, collects and preserves newspapers, ledgers, photographs, documents, three-dimensional artifacts, oral histories, maps, books, and more. An art museum collects art-related pieces; a science museum has science-related collections, and etc.

Because what we’re collecting at our museum tends to be specific to individuals, each piece has a unique history, making it irreplaceable from the standpoint of that history. This is true for many of the collections held by museums. Due to the irreplaceable nature of our artifacts, there is no easy way to allow patrons to check them out and take them home. Museums have to find other ways to share our collections with the public.

The platforms (to borrow a tech term) we can use to share our collections are many and include physical exhibits, digital exhibits, publications (newsletters, books, magazines, brochures), websites, tours, classes, programs and events, videos, and research activities. Each museum expresses its collection-sharing mission through its own blend of platforms.

At the Morrison County Historical Society, we’re trying to reach two distinct audiences, people who want to use our resources for their own research and those who want to consume content that we create from our collections. This means our collections have to be prepared for both audiences. Our documents, newspapers, and photos are in high demand among the research audience, while a blend of our collections put together into a cohesive story is preferred by our consumer audience.

In preparing collections for researchers, we need to arrange them in a way that makes them easy to retrieve and search. Researchers very much appreciate when museum staff has pulled together documents related to a specific topic, even if it means spending months or years culling and compiling that information.

It is through research at the museum that our audience can directly interact with a portion of the museum’s collection. While you can’t check out our books, documents, photos or newspapers, you will be allowed to carefully handle many of them.

When it comes to preparing the collections for the consumer audience, much of the work is done behind the scenes, with the product being the only thing experienced by the public. Weeks of research and writing can go into a one-thousand word newsletter article on the history of a local business. Years are needed to write a local history book. Months of steady work are required to build an exhibit, possibly years if the exhibit is particularly large, complex or controversial. A theme has to be chosen, research done, collections items retrieved from storage and arranged in the exhibit space, photos reproduced, labels written, and related brochures, websites, and other public pieces produced that market and expand upon the exhibit.

If museum staff does its job right, the final product should appear to have been effortless and must be ready to transfer knowledge to the consumer.

So, then, if you need an efficient way to explain what museums do, remember, museums are just like libraries in that they have collections that are meant to increase public knowledge. Because we can’t send our collections home with you, we have found many other ways to share them with you.

 By Mary Warner

Copyright 2013, Morrison County Historical Society

Article first published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 2, 2013.

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