WHAT DO MUSEUMS REALLY DO?
If we distill its activities down to basics, a modern large-scale museum has three fundamental tasks: to create knowledge, to disseminate knowledge, and to provide services to visitors.
The creation of knowledge requires activities that are generally behind-the-scenes; the public tends to be unaware of them, even though within the museum community these activities are central to the profession. I am speaking of collecting, storage, conservation, and research. Although there are exceptions to this rule, most museums have at their core a collection of artifacts. In a history museum, the process of collecting assumes a knowledge of the past that guides decisions on what objects are significant to help us understand that past. Storage requires us to organize artifacts in a way that imposes knowledge structures on collections. Conservation contributes to our understanding of those artifacts, the people who made or used them, and their societal role. Research provides a more detailed context for understanding the objects and what they tell us. While some of this research is derived from secondary sources, much of it is direct and primary, possibly involving archaeological excavation, oral interviews, archival work, as well as study of the objects themselves.
Prior to the 1970s, these knowledge-creation processes absorbed the bulk of museum resources. Exhibitions did provide for some public access, but without much emphasis on visitor needs. The dissemination of information was relatively small-scale. The shift of museums towards mass cultural tourism is largely a product of the past thirty years. To take the example of my own institution, the Canadian Museum of Civilization was able during the 1980s to entirely renew itself in preparation for its move to new facilities, purpose-built to meet the needs of many museum visitors.
Museums today place less emphasis on showing artifacts than on helping people create meaning. Exhibitions in the past typically consisted of long rows of display cases crowded with artifacts on a theme. Labels provided sparse information because museums saw themselves as educational institutions for a select few. It was assumed that visitors would have sufficient educational background to appreciate, with minimal aid, the artifacts on display.
Museums today are more popular in their communication styles, even though the largest portion of visitors still come from the more educated segment of the population. 3 This popular approach recognizes that an effective visit, in terms of visitor learning, relies heavily on the overall quality of a visit. Factors such as helpful staff, fast processing of line-ups, accessible spaces within buildings, physical amenities (parking, cafeteria, rest areas), and opportunities to purchase souvenirs are all elements that reinforce a pleasant experience. By dealing effectively with such needs, museums can make visitors more receptive to a meaningful learning experience.
Contemporary museums make themselves more appealing through the way exhibitions are designed. In the past, physical objects – artifacts – were often presented in large numbers, with similar objects shown for comparative purposes. We might call this a ‘parking lot’ approach to display. Today’s exhibitions are highly selective in showing objects to illustrate themes. More space is assigned to interpretive aids, explanatory texts, photographs, audiovisual presentations, or entire settings reconstructing the historical environment in which objects were used.
Museum exhibitions therefore seek to communicate by targeting a range of senses, as well as the intellect and the emotions of visitors. The learning process occurs through the assimilation of impressions; this affective learning is an informal, often unconscious, process. The range of media used, combined with interactive opportunities, cater to a variety of learning preferences. Visitors choose which elements they examine with care, and which they gloss over, based on individual preferences such as what makes a personal connection, what is exotic, or intriguing.
Museums also use some techniques of formal learning, but do so as a supplement to their informal information roles. Their major interest is to act as adjuncts to the classroom. At the Museum of Civilization, we have facilities catering specifically to school group visits – reception area, classrooms, lunchroom. There are also structured programmes to support curriculum themes, outreach programmes for interpreters to bring hands-on artifacts into schools, and guided visits geared to provincial curricula.