When I asked a group of museum visitors the other day what a museum is, the responses ranged from “building” to “brown” to “a place to play.” While I guess I shouldn’t have expected a concise, coherent definition from 30 five-year-olds, it got my mind spinning. What is a museum? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I still don’t have a complete answer, but here are some thoughts from behind the scenes.
Museums have long been buildings in the community that are acknowledged but rarely used. Frankly, if you look at any statistics, museums around the country are having a hard time being relevant to the community as a whole instead of the small proportion who frequent them. Lots of them get money, like we do at the Johnson County Museum, from local or federal government which wants museums to justify what they are and what they do. Museums already are and do so many great things that are overlooked when stakeholders are worried about tangible impacts.
Museums are learning spaces. In the age of standardized testing, learning has become a very structured experience. As teachers and lawmakers have found out, demonstrating
that a student has learned something is a very difficult task. My desk is located near the entrance of Kidscape, the JCM’s children’s exhibit. Most of what I hear is garbled by acoustics, but a week or so ago, I got to listen to a mom tell her son about the postal service. He learned how to sort mail and deliver it to the correct address. The museum acted as a space that facilitated his understanding of an abstract government function.
Museums are conduits to cool things, like the picture of this cat with her kittens.
I don’t know how many times I hear exclamations about the 1950s All Electric House or the electric blue 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Between all of the objects in the gallery and all of the photos and articles available online, museums can bring the ephemera of the past to today’s reality. It’s all pretty cool.
Museums are connectors. Moms chat and catch up while their kids bond while traipsing through Kidscape forging social connections. Objects can jog memories of times bygone and connect with your personal experiences or can bring into focus parts of the past that had not quite clicked.
None of these examples are very tangible. Quizzing every child as they exit Kidscape for what they learned, creating a coolness rating for every object, or making sure every visitor has a connecting experience in the museum are impossible to measure, but museums do them all the same. So the next time you want to learn and connect to something cool, go to a museum. We’ll be glad to see you.
-Lauren Taylor, Johnson County Museum