When someone thinks of a place to travel to, he/she will check the main attractions. There is no doubt that museums possess a great part of every must-see list ; no matter which the destination is! Museums have become part of the identity of each geographical area both as educational institutions as well as landmarks. For example, nobody would neglect visiting the Louvre while traveling to Paris or the British Museum while being in London.
But, at the end, what makes a museum a good one?
People would state different characteristics, depending on the angle and the character of each person.
A museum could be viewed from different angles:
Normally the first thing that should come to people’s mind constitute its’ exhibits. This is also how museums are categorized in most catalogues. art, history, nature, science are only some of the categories. In addition, in terms of exhibits, it is counted the value and the wealth of a museum. For example, the Louvre, Moma and Musee d’Orsay have such a large collection of exhibits that once a while they change some of their exhibits, make temporary exhibitions or “rent” pieces for a year to another museum. In contrast, other museums buy pieces in order to become more known. People travel from the one side of the world to see Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s paintings or T-Rex’s bones.
Museums of archaeological sites, on the other hand, usually have only pieces of the specific site. And for some people that raises the question if some multi- historical museums should have exhibits that belong to other sites, like the British Museum which has marbles from Athens’ Acropolis and sarcophagus from Egypt. That constitutes a very controversial topic.
On the one hand, people suggest that historical pieces should be at the historical site where they originally belonged as they would give a more complete view of the antiquity and also as these pieces are part of the cultural heritage of a specific part of the world that also identifies its’ geographical, historical and cultural identity. But, in those terms, every portrait of a Renaissance noble should be at the house that was made for, shouldn’t it? And nobody would have access to it.
On the other hand, some other people suggest that museum constitute educational institutions. Therefore, having pieces of art or history from all over the world in a museum promotes knowledge and allows people to become a more homo universalis. Also, museums like the British Museum have millions of visitors per year and therefore, more people can admire unique pieces. Also big museums have better preservation labs. For example the Louvre has a whole School of Art and Preservation.
Overall, that is a very complicated matter but it can certainly give an understanding of the importance of the exhibits.
Another aspect of viewing a museum is its’ building. An amazing example of this characteristic is the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It has a figurative layout, distinguishing from any other building around and built specifically for accommodating exhibits. Some Museums, like the Louvre with its’ made of glass pyramid, have just a unique building with no specific design of the building itself as a space to be used for exhibitions.
Nonetheless, in both cases mentioned above as in many others as well, there upraises the questions: we visit the museums for their unique buildings or for their exhibits? Does the unique design overpasses the uniqueness of its’ exhibits instead of showing the exhibits in a better way? From my personal point of view, both cases exist but normally, the building should accompany the exhibitions and not be the centre of attention. For me, that was the case of my visit to Guggenheim. Having a minimal modern art exhibition, the big white wall of this unique circular architectural design was “absorbing” all the owe of the audience. Yet, It is for sure that exhibits that would use a lot of space would look amazing there.
On the other hand, there is the case of Yale University’s Art Gallery. “Louis Kahn (1901–1974) designed the renowned modernist building that is adjacent to the two neo-Gothic structures. The Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center was Kahn’s first significant commission and is widely considered his first masterpiece. When it opened in 1953, the building included open spaces for the exhibition of art and studio spaces for use by art and architecture students. Constructed of masonry, concrete, glass, and steel, and presenting a windowless wall along its most public facade, the Kahn building was the first modernist structure at Yale. Kahn’s design has been celebrated not only for its beauty, geometry, and light, but also for its structural and engineering innovations, particularly the tetrahedral ceiling and cylindrical main staircase.”(source: http://artgallery.yale.edu)
This building, without have a distinguished external buildings from other glass buildings, it has an amazing layout of rooms and lighting for showing artworks. Also, the organization of the exhibition is set in such harmony that the visit is a continuous trip to world’s art history till today with no gaps in between them. As an art student once mentioned, “if you have a gallery like that to your university, there is no need to visit any other art museums”. To me that is what I would consider a success for a museum.
3 Reputation/PR/ Business
Nowadays, our society becomes more and more technocratic. That is a really that affects also the museum sector too. It seems that museums need to become more and more proper companies that should look for profit, in order them to remain vivid and profitable.
To be more specific, nowadays, museums to keep up have to think like businesses. They need people to visit their exhibitions otherwise their existence makes nonsense. They should think like a meeting point, a venue for entertainment and for profit. A good example of a that contemporary role of museums constitute Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a historic monument with amazing exhibits. It ha, thought to compete with landmarks like Tate and the British Museum. Nonetheless, although it is not as famous as those museums, millions of visitors pass by everyday, all the temporary exhibitions have massive success and most importantly…. Once you visit it, you want to go back!
What more can a business ask from having “clients” always returning!?
4 Shop/Coffee/ Entertainment venue
Although museums should have mainly an educational role, it is true that the most busy spaces of them and the most profitable constitute its’ shops and cafes/restaurants. People tend more and more to see museums as entertainment venues and meeting points. Therefore, special events, like late Friday’s at Victoria and Albert Museum or products that are special editions for temporary exhibitions always have big success. It is not accidental the fact that products of MOMA museum can be found in shops all over the world.
The success of these areas of each museum changes also the identity of the museum, as well as the management of the museum. For example, if a museum’s café brings daily more profit than the museum itself ,like the museum of gardening in Central London, the management of the museums will focus more on the evolution of the café/restaurant, rather than the exhibits. That fact is pretty reasonable, especially thinking that a museum works as a company having income, costs etc. At that point, though, it rises the question: “is that right?”.
Museums have an educational role. When we treat them like restaurants or shops their identity changes. Nobody can disagree that this is a side effect of the needs of today’s society that also changes the image and the role of museum on the 21st century. This new role of the museum brings more people in the museum and turns museums to venues that people visit every other day and not once a year or when they visit other countries. The question is if that helps the education through museums or it turns the museums into profitable businesses with no ethics or educational role.
5 Research/ Sociology / Future
Apart from having cafes and shops, museums have started having research centres. Other for scholar education and other for universities’ researches. Innovation and experimentation brings new exhibitions and publicity to museums. Also, for most, these centres are the places where the future of museums lies to. New methods and new observations create the future. Also bringing young people into museums means that it is created a museum culture into the new generations. Research constitute the expansion and evolution of the museums. This can be done both by having research centres, but also by having meeting spaces and labs and libraries into the museums that can be used for multiple reasons. This fact shows that flexibility is a really important factor for the contemporary role of the museums.
All what is mentioned above are personal observations and questions that want to give an answer to one general question: What is the role of museums within the society? Feel free to comment and mostly disagree with what is written! It is the best way to learns and have an overall and more concrete outcome!