The Anthropologist in the Museum: The Museum as Community

BHoF Ribbon Cutting

In my last post, I defined a museum as “a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects.” I then spent quite a bit of time dealing with the implications and ramifications of the word “objects”. But there’s another important part of that definition, one which opens up a significantly different view of what a museum is, and that’s the part about a museum being a “social institution”.

Objects can be displayed in a lot of contexts. I have a bunch of artworks by local Las Vegas artists displayed throughout my home — but that doesn’t make my home a museum of Las Vegas art. Lots of people put together collections of images on Pinterest that communicate knowledge about themselves or topics that interest them, but Pinterest isn’t a museum either.

What makes a museum a museum is that it’s social, and that it’s an institution. As a social phenomenon, a museum is a point of connection for a community of visitors, researchers, curators and other staff, and even subjects. And as an institution, that connection, that web of social relationships, is a structured one. 

It’s hard to put a finger on just what that structure is, though I think I hinted at it somewhat when I described museums as generating their own aura, producing in visitors a museum habitus that regulates their interaction with the museum. The relationship a museum has with its audience, consultants, donors, staff, and volunteers is structured by a wide variety of social forces: the cultural capital of the organization (and of its audiences), legal regulation, notions of academic integrity, class relationships, and so on. These forces combine to shape a community, and a community is what transforms hodge-podge of objects, architecture (physical or informational), staff, and audience into a museum.

Or rather, community is the museum.

In part this is because museums are in constant communication with an audience. And in part, this is because museums, like other nonprofits, rely on charitable giving and volunteer labor to survive. So a museum is literally a collection of donors, sponsors, and volunteers, and where paid staff is involved at least part of their job is relating to this community.

But I want to go a little further and place the museum and its staff not so much “in relation” to their community of benefactors of various stripes, but “as part of” that community. A museum exists as a focal point of a self-selected community of people who relate to others within that community in various ways.

The “museum as community” idea is very much reflected in contemporary museum practice. One of the most influential voices in the museum world today is Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, advocate of a sort of museum where planning, exhibition development, and administration are done not for a community but with or even in a community. This kind of approach is reflected in, for example, the “pop-up museum”, where exhibitions are assembled on the spur of the moment by members of the museum community — say, an exhibit on the Korean War created by Korean War veterans out of material that they themselves supply with object labels written by visitors and reflecting not necessarily historical fact but visitors’ individual relationshipw with the objects they encounter.

This is a far cry from the Met’s refusal over the first several decades of its existence to be open evenings or weekends to accommodate working class visitors, or the British Museum’s policy in the late 19th century of requiring visitors prove their qualifications before being allowed to view the collection. (Though to be fair, those museums were also communities, just really, really exclusive ones.)

In this time of changing standards of accessibility and transparency, even collections can be part of the community — as in numerous collections of Native American objects which have opened up their collections to the people represented by the objects in the museum’s possession, so that Indians can rekindle their relationships with the people, spirits, and objects taken from their homes in the past and sealed off during the less-open years of the 20th century.

If museums are communities, then, what can we make of the role of Executive DIrector? Is he or she a steward of the institution on the community’s behalf? A shepherd, drawing together a flock to graze in the cultural fields of his or her exhibition halls? A minister, a boss, a teacher, a cloistered monk? I prefer to think of my role, and of my fellow museum directors’ roles, as that of a community organizer, charged with using the resources at hand to empower others in my community to change their lives. Of course, it flatters me to think of myself this way, but given how I’ve come to think about museums, it seems an apt enough metaphor for what a museum director does.

I have a couple of other things I want to talk about in this series — how an exhibition gets put together, and the issue of who funds museums and why, among some other less-developed ideas — but it seems like a good time to ask if there’s anything others would like to see me explore in this space? I can’t promise I’ll answer everything anyone asks, but I’ll certainly think about it. By now it’s clear that I don’t see myself as a participant-observer in this field; I am pretty much just participating, and whatever observing I do is strictly a reflex of my training. But while I make no pretense towards any kind of objectivity (and, frankly, wouldn’t even if I were doing real fieldwork here — objectivity is for robots and the weak-minded) I will, as much as possible, strive to be honest.

9 thoughts on “The Anthropologist in the Museum: The Museum as Community

  1. Dustin, I would like to hear your thoughts on the relationship of your museum to place and space. By place I mean a geographical place that asserts a distinct identity. In the case of the USA I would be thinking of a hierarchy that would include museums run by local historical societies at one extreme and the Smithsonian Institution at the other, with state museums in the middle. By space I mean a cultural space, typically defined by association with some particular type of activity, the founding of the nation at Colonial Williamsburg, seafaring and shipbuilding at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia (both near where I grew up), traditional rural life at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, modern art at the Phillips in Washington,D.C. The cultural or conceptual spaces occupied by these museums spill over geographical boundaries.

  2. I’ll think about that, John. Place is actually really important to history museums, a huge number of which are historical house museums or located in historical structures. My thumbnail thought is that it’s not entirely dissimilar to the issues around “the field” in anthropology — for instance, how some places become associated with specific concepts, like the Trobriand Islands and “exchange” or the Azande and “magic”. There was a panel on “place” in the museum world at the conference I went to last week — alas, I didn’t go to it :-(

  3. What I’m wondering about, none too clearly yet, is what I am tentatively calling “selective affinities” between places and spaces. Thus, for example, it seems entirely right to me that your burlesque museum should be in Las Vegas, where glitz, glitter, gambling and gangsters are all part of a cultural ambience in which burlesque fits perfectly. I would probably feel the same if the museum were located in Atlantic City. If, on the other hand, it were located in Omaha or Cincinnati, my reaction would be “What the F…!” and intense interest in the story if how that happened.

  4. Hi Dustin,

    Thank you for the kind shout-out in your post. I went back and read the previous one and wished I had come to visit you when I was in the area in the spring. I strongly believe that small, idiosyncratic museums (which I can only imagine yours is) have the greatest potential to lead the field in a shift towards community-centered practice. As a fellow executive director, I sympathize with the “community organizer” role.

    That said, I think your characterization of the role as being “charged with using the resources at hand to empower others in my community to change their lives” as a bit one-sided. One of the things I’ve learned over the past 1.5 years as an ED is how much other people–community members–bring assets and resources that empower our institution in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Maybe it’s more about being charged to energize people and connect diverse resources to co-create a stronger community.

  5. Nina: Thanks so much! I might not have phrased that part well — and of course you’re right. I couldn’t do my job at all without the tremendous support I get from the community my museum serves. But that does mark a significant departure from past museum practices! In a sense, being an ED (or at least how I see my role) means empowering others to empower the museum. It’s definitely a two-way street. Maybe that’s best reflected in the growing focus on “engagement” vs. “education” — today’s museums search for ways of engaging with audiences and other members of their community, rather than simply lecturing at them. (Of course, as an educator “in my spare time” — I’ve adjuncted for 10 years now — I have to say that “education” reflects that same shift, moving from a lecture-based model to one that works to engage learners more broadly. But hopefully I’m putting this clearly enough…).

  6. John: Ironically, Las Vegas isn’t much of a burlesque town — although a lot of burlesque legends performers here (Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr, Candy Barr, Liz Renay), there’s always been a lot of “noise” in the form of choreographed stage productions (topless revues and the like) and, later, more explicit entertainments (strip clubs, adult entertainment, etc.). When I started volunteering at BHoF 2 1/2 years ago, there was hardly any burlesque here. The big burlesque cities are Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto, and a handful of others.

    And of course, we didn’t start here. Exotic World, our name before the move to Vegas, was in Helendale, CA, a tiny little place on a stretch of old Route 66 near Victorville, hardly a burlesque hotspot! They could have just as easily moved to LA when Exotic World had to be closed, it’s just a historical accident that Las Vegas was chosen instead.

    Now, as a person charged with the *business* of running a museum, it is my job to recognize the value of the “glitz, glitter, gambling and gangsters” image and try to make it work for us. With the Mob Museum opening here earlier this year and the Neon Museum just about to open its doors to the public, both only a few blocks from our location, there’s a real synergy. I’ve taken to saying “The people on our walls dated the people on the Mob Museum’s walls under the signs at the Neon Museum.” But if we were somewhere else, we’d adapt — lots of other museums end up in places with no direct connection to their content (Seattle’s Rock and Roll Experience and Los Angeles’ Holocaust Museum come to mind). And of course, natural history museums, science centers, and zoos are found just about everywhere.

    But it’s true, historical museums do tend to take advantage of their place, most notably in that the vast bulk of them are housed in historical buildings, like the MLK museum at the spot where he was assassinated, or the many, many museums dedicated to particular people in the houses where they lived. In quite a few cases, the building is part of the collection, or even *is* the collection (like the Tenement House Museum in New York). Place has power — going along with my discussion of the “aura” of objects in the last post. There’s no specific reason why it would be easier to learn certain lessons about the past at the place where it happened, but Western museum culture is hardly unique in taking advantage of the fact that, apparently, it does — culture after culture marks specific places as “sacred” and ties aspects of its cultural, historical, and moral instruction to those places.

  7. Fascinating. I love the wealth of detail that upsets conventional images. What could be more anthropological. Are you familiar with Michael Kammen’s _Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture_? If not, I’d highly recommend it.

  8. Thanks for the book recommendation, John. It looks really interesting! (It’s also 880 pages, which is a little thick to fit into my current “bedside stack”, so it may be a while before I can get to it…)

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