Museums showcase attitudes and beliefs as well as objects
Most museums are defined by the objects they display. A fine-arts museum exhibits paintings and sculptures. A history museum shows artifacts and documents. A science museum presents experiments.
But a growing number of museums today define themselves not by their collections but by the ideas they promote.
Take the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Founded after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the museum promotes acceptance and peace across diverse cultures. That may be a noble cause with few obvious detractors, but it nonetheless represents a significant departure. Rather than present an authoritative vision of history, the museum is trying to shape its visitors’ behavior in the world beyond the gallery walls.
An offshoot of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, the Museum of Tolerance has a large permanent exhibition examining the Holocaust. Yet it also features theTolerancenter, with interactive displays encouraging visitors to set aside prejudices and become more liberal and accepting.
The Museum of Tolerance acknowledges that it is “not an ordinary museum of artifacts and documents.” Instead, the museum says it aims to “not only remind us of the past, but remind us to act.”
Then there is the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. A 70,000-square-foot space that “brings the pages of the Bible to life,” the Creation Museum presents a counterargument to the theory of evolution with a series of exhibits that make the case for the theory of intelligent design.
But are these institutions, promoting causes and trying to change minds, really museums? Even among museum professionals, there is no clear answer.
“Neither the American Alliance of Museums nor the Institute of Museum and Library Services promulgates an official definition of what a museum is, in part because it’s hard to draw a line around a squishy concept,” said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the museum alliance. “In America, anyone can and does call anything a museum.”
Now new entrants are seeking to become a part of the mix.
In New York, a project is underway to create the New York City Peace Museum. In a city of more than 100 museums, such an institution would struggle to stand out. Nonetheless, the Peace Museum, which is being developed by an artist named SuZen, has attracted supporters.
“At most museums, you go, you just look at pictures on the wall,” SuZen said. “Ours is not that. Ours is about promoting peace. I see it more as something that inspires people to take action.”
Right now, the Peace Museum is raising money in hopes of securing a permanent building. SuZen said she would like it to be in Lower Manhattan, near ground zero, for symbolic reasons. Exhibitions would celebrate peacemakers like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. “We have war museums,” she said. “Why not peace museums?”
In thinking of the Peace Museum as a community center as much as an exhibition hall, SuZen is tapping into a wider trend. “One of the conversations that has really accelerated over the last 20 years is the idea of a museum not being a teacher, but being a place for convening and discussion,” Ms. Merritt said.
A similar effort is underway in Philadelphia, where a group is planning the Envision Peace Museum, meant to be operational by the end of the decade.
If these new museums lack large permanent collections, that should come as no surprise. Soaring costs and a scarcity of quality artifacts have made it harder than ever to assemble new troves. Yet in today’s reformulated vision of what a museum can be, this may not be a problem.
“We’re moving over the past 150 years from the idea that museums are principally about the stuff to focusing more as a society about issues,” Ms. Merritt said.
Another so-called issue museum underway is the Adoption Museum, being developed by Laura Callen in Berkeley, Calif. Adopted as a child, Ms. Callen grew up longing for a place to make sense of her experience. She developed the idea of a museum and is now working to make it a reality. So far, Ms. Callen has been raising money and staging small trial exhibitions at established sites.
While acknowledging that the Adoption Museum does not hew to traditional standards of what a museum is, Ms. Callen said there was room for an institution that embraced exhibitions and advocacy side by side. “It fits into a new kind of museum that is emerging, museums that are multidisciplinary,” she said. “Ultimately, for me, this project is about social change.”
Ms. Callen acknowledged that there were risks with this new genre. Coming up with exhibitions to fill the space is a challenge even at the best museums. Yet in an era when virtually any institution can call itself a museum, it seems to be the ideas, not the objects, that matter.
“Any museum person, when push comes to shove, will tell you that preservation of the stuff is an important part of their job,” Ms. Merritt said. “But it’s ultimately about the meaning.”