Is it even possible to define a museum today? If the Museum of Ice Cream is a museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a museum, then perhaps the category has lost all coherence. Or, as students of museum history might point out, it never had much coherence. The modern idea of the museum originated in the Renaissance, with the diverse collecting of wealthy amateurs. Their enthusiasms spanned both art and science, and their collections were idiosyncratic: paintings, small bronzes, manuscripts, fossils and animal relics, and the odd religious icon or two. Displayed in “cabinet of curiosities,” these collections would eventually become more accessible to the public and were the precursors of the modern museum that evolved in the 19th century.
The impulses that drove early collecting were manifold, including intellectual curiosity and personal aggrandizement. The disinterested love of knowledge and love of beautiful things was as powerful an incentive as the desire to display one’s wealth and the competitive desire to lay hands on rare and valuable things. Those mixed purposes seemed to congeal in the 19th-century museum, which sought both to educate and overwhelm the visitor with the majesty of culture, art and knowledge, and which grew proportionate to the wealth and civic pride that inspired their donors. Before the Smithsonian became a collection of 17 different museums and galleries (and a zoo and other affiliated research centers), it was just a collection of stuff, ranging all the fields of human study and creativity. A remnant of that undifferentiated approach to the display and preservation of objects can be found in the name that is still attached to the now-empty Arts and Industries building.
But we’ve come to think of museums as the flagship vessels of our collective desire for self-improvement. Ideally, they are benevolent purveyors of education: open, accessible places for communal self-definition. They have a purpose beyond entertainment and distraction, and for that reason they are considered philanthropic institutions, afforded the privileges of nonprofit institutions, including substantial tax breaks for those who donate to them. We expect a certain level of professionalism in how they are run, and though museum leaders may be handsomely paid, they are not remunerated like chief executives of major corporations. A sense of service prevails or, at least, should prevail when one contemplates the meaning of the word.
So what then to make of the private museum, museums that charge admission, museums that take as their subject matter things that seem trivial or remote from educational aspiration? What of museums that exist as a promotional adjunct to a larger institution, like the corporate museum, or the Drug Enforcement Administration museum and visitor’s center in Arlington? And then there are the tendentious museums, like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. (“The state-of-the-art Creation Museum allows you to venture through biblical history, stunning exhibits, botanical gardens, planetarium, zoo, zip line adventure course, and much more,” according to its website.) Are they museums, too?
It isn’t easy coming up with a definition capacious enough to include the richness and diversity of the museum world without being so wide open that it might as well encompass theme parks and drinking holes that just happen to include the word “Museum” in their name. Not all museums include research among their priorities, though the best ones do. Not all museums take up grand themes or big ideas. The Tinkertown Museum outside of Albuquerque includes tools and toys and antiques and western memorabilia, along with the architectural and decorative whimsy of its founder, a self-taught artist, and yet it is an entirely memorable museum (“Ever a work in progress, Tinkertown is ready to inspire your imagination and awaken your creative spirit” is its slogan).
Still, even if a final definition of museum is elusive, the effort is worth making. If nothing else, one hopes that the word “museum” will always be aspirational, even for the most established and respected institutions. As the idea of museum becomes more a question of style than substance — as organizations that want to be museums learn that for many people, this is just a question of presenting information in a certain way, more about looking like a museum than being a museum — the power of actual museums is in jeopardy. And that’s not a minor worry. “Museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers,” according to the American Alliance of Museums, citing a private research firm.
Of course, serious museums are unlikely to defend themselves against incursions on the dignity of the traditional museum. That would be as impolitic as serious artists laying exclusive claim to the word “art” against the efforts of amateurs or outsiders or wannabes. It’s not a good look. But the public can be skeptical about the elasticity of the definition. Even asking oneself, privately, whether a museum lives up to the ideal of a museum as an educational institution is a constructive form of comparative analysis. And, of course, when the use of the museum label is patently ridiculous, there is always the power of voting with one’s pocket book.
Is it really a museum of beer? Perhaps it would be better to walk down the street and drink up in an old-fashioned bar.