What People Think of Museums

What do people think of when they think about museums? 

Specifically, I am talking about what  college students, most of whom come from eastern Massachusetts, think of when you ask them to do a free association with the word "museums."  Now to be fair, this class of mine, Intro to Public History, has a mixed blend of students.  Some are avid young public historians and they take as many classes as they can in material culture, museum studies, architecture, local history, etc.  Others, ummm, it fit their schedule.   So here's what comes to mind for them:

I am not sure why we had so much fun with this, or why I found the exercise both utterly entertaining and oddly gratifying.  But I did.  We laughed a lot.  We had an intelligent conversation.  

I guess that's it.  We laughed a lot and had an intelligent conversation.  (Not necessarily mutually exclusive activities, but you'd be surprised how rarely the two occur simultaneously.)

After we generated the list projected onto a screen from my laptop, I asked them which words they would bold; that's why particular words are larger than others in the word map above. 

All of the students in the class had been to a museum in the past five years.  Half had been in the past year and a half.  A few had visited museums this month and a couple, who work in museums, said they'd been in museums today.  

I've spent a fair amount of time recently telling people how much museums have changed, how they have become more participatory, more open, more innovative.  I believe this; I think in general we are witnessing an important sea change in relation to the museum as an American institution -- I can't speak for other nations.

On one hand,  it was a little surprising how many of them associated the old school, "don't make any noise, don't go beyond the red velvet rope, do not under any circumstances touch anything" rules with contemporary museums.  

On the flip side, though, they go to museums on dates.  They clearly identify a wide cross-section of visitors -- from little kids to senior citizens, the local class trip to the international tourist --  They also see (and indeed utilize) museums as spaces of reflection.  

Of course, my students had hysterical stories of getting in lots of trouble for touching, running, wandering into roped-off rooms. As one observed, "I didn't know English people could yell like that."   I know, I know, they shouldn't.  But a part of me is gleeful that they do -- that they test the boundaries of the museal impulse instead of rejecting it out of hand.  

It made me glad that as a group, my students recognize the larger purposes of museums as institutions.  They understand the role they can play in preserving objects and the critical task of interpreting artifacts, artwork and other objects that hold meaning.  They identified emotional experiences, including guilt and pride, and just as importantly, they named learning -- just learning.  A process.  A process that takes place within museums.

So, while they identified some of the limitations of museums in the popular imagination, they also pointed to the critical functions museums play and shed some light onto arenas of potential.  

A 20 minute activity and so much came out it.  Pretty great.