The value and purpose of museums have transformed in tandem with the human's rising desire to understand the configurations and processes that control the nature. For a long time, museums have been viewed as warehouses for verifiable facts of life's assortment and as inquisitiveness for curiosity's sake. With time, more specimens have been accumulated, transforming this essential function of museums to cultural and scientific purposes. People have come to appreciate museums as an authentic reference library of science, Earth and life's history. As such, museums act as references that one can consult time and again when faced with difficult questions in life. Besides all these advantages of museums, there are various challenges confronting museums in the 21st century and this paper uncovers two primary challenges.
As Hein (2005) puts it in his article, “The Role of Museums in Society: Education and Social Action," museums' functions have been turned into a tri-fold mission. These functions include scholarship and research mission, assortments preservation and public education. Thereby, visitors visit museums for two purposes either to gain knowledge outside the tiresome mental task of reading or to awe at the beauty that men can create if they set their mind to it. However, the 21st century has experienced a slow evolution, as the primary role of museums of preservation and research are being replaced by a push to be more tourist-oriented. The managers insist on disseminating information rather than increasing it. Further, the introductions of multiple new roles (ranging from social work to environmental activism) in museum field have increased their participation in the accountability and community to the earth's welfare. These myriad roles have brought chaos in the museum field, and the only way to avoid all these is by making museums to concentrate on their collections and their core mission.
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However, it seems that every museum is focused on this prototype shift, transforming from being mainly collections-centered to community-involved and visitor-centric. Although this transformation is beneficial in many ways, much emphasis on education as a principal objective of museums is curtailing their ability to distinguish themselves from other entertainment and educational bodies.
Secondly, the current world is characterized by rapid changes and increased resource depletion. As such, many specimens and long-term dataset stored in museum assortments have questionably never been essential. For instance, the emergence technologies that are entirely critical and irreplaceable in tracking the spread of contagious diseases, have replaced the downplayed the importance of museum as a reference point when tracing diseases. Scholars well appreciate the societal and scientific values of museums; however, museums have not succeeded in transmitting these profound appreciations of collections and resultant studies to museum visitors and other civic audiences (Packer, 2008). Because of this, there is an increasing gap between visitors and scientist/historian view of museum collections. Consequently, lack of interest and awareness has resulted in the decline of funding opportunities and resources, which is essential for museum growth, research, and maintenance. Nowadays, it is common to hear of museums working under budget deficits. This has forced them to cut spending on research and collection programs, and some have shut down altogether; while the smaller ones have been forced to donate their collection to larger museums.
Based on my research, pushing for public’s appreciation for museums is a critical step towards creating an environment of equal indebtedness for museums (Packer, 2008). And this should be a primary task for any museum wishing to remain functional in the contemporary world. Presently, many museums have not displayed an active role as campaigners for collections within their institutional walls, where the likelihood of visitor accessibility and interaction is paramount. Exhibitions offer an essential medium through which museums can interact with the public. Most people believe that museum’s exhibitions are the sole service they expect to experience as visitors. Therefore, societal and scientific values of museums should be properly showcased in exhibitions; otherwise, visitors will have the impression that museums only exist to have exhibitions. In simple terms, the two sides of the museum’s tri-fold mission (preservation and research) are irrelevant from visitors’ perspective of museums. Hence, simple things such as friendly and helpful staff can be essential in reducing visitors’ anxieties. According to Rand (2004), “if visitors see themselves represented in exhibits and programs and on the staff, they will feel more like they belong” (158).
With regard to financial downturns, museums need a proper planning mechanism. Simon (2011) articulates that it is important to develop new business models that will be able museums to sustain both funding and operations. For instance, museums can advertise and market themselves through the internet, which can bring more visitors to the institution. In some cases, financial matters are well out of the ability of historians and lovers of art thereby it would be essential to work with other professionals such as economists and marketers to deduce the way forward for any museum at least in an economic aspect. If the museum fails to keep up economically with other institutions such as film and music industry, it will be rendered irrelevant with no audiences.
In conclusion, museums are facilities that have a special place in all our cultures. They remind humanity of their past and help us appreciate the difference in a life today. However, the museum field is facing many difficulties, which require urgent solutions; otherwise, they might as well become irrelevant. Other forms of entertainment are booming, and the museum field is playing catch up. However, if museums learn the art of capturing and engaging the audience, then the museum field can perhaps be on par with music and the rest. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
Hein, G. E. (2005). The Role of Museums in Society: Education and Social Action. Curator , 48(4), 357-363.
Packer, J. (2008). Beyond Learning: Exploring Visitors' Perceptions of the Value and Benefits of Museum Experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal , 51(1), 33-54.
Rand, J. (2004). Chapter 13: The Visitors’ Bill of Rights. In Gail, A. (Ed.), Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift . New York: Rowman & Littlefield publishers, Inc.
Simon, N. (2011). What Are the Most Important Problems in Our Field? Retrieved August 15, 2016, from http://museumtwo.blogspot.co.ke/2011/10/what-are-most-important-problems-in-our.html.