Can museums ever be anything more than just a “nice-to-have” feature of society?
Paul Gessell may wonder why the important work of museums like the Portrait Gallery of Canada isn’t adequately supported (“A picture of the Canadian people: Why the portrait gallery matters.” Ottawa Citizen, 11 September 2009), but it’s really no mystery. Museums haven’t made a compelling case for their relevance.
They could be leaders in this knowledge-based economy. With a little imagination, museums might become indispensable, they might become an essential support structure for the Canadian brand; the catalyst helping Canadians to see themselves, to understand each other, and to be understood abroad.
Yet everything they do – from their entitlement mindset and sense of their intellectual superiority to their indifference about telling their stories to their curious willingness to embrace inappropriate marketing gimmicks – limits their potential impact.
“People should understand us,” is a common museum excuse. Well, they don’t. What museums are saying isn’t compelling enough to keep people engaged and connected. Because it’s relatively cheap, museums are now keen on social networking. Yet new computer systems – as with most of the trends they embrace – only give the appearance of doing something, they don’t make museums more relevant.
Until museums transcend their physical collections and are intrusive about communicating national stories to a broader audience – start telling people everywhere about their public value – they will remain irrelevant and underfunded, little more than a “nice-to-have” feature of society.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a responsible organization willing to turn museum thinking on its head. With the Canadian Museums Association as little more than a glorified lobby group (and a failed lobbyist at that), the sector is virtually leaderless, completely incapable of advising its charges on how to develop a place in the mind. So that’s where change has to start.