David Allison is the Manager of Onsite Programs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
How do museums fit in, confront, or adapt to a rapidly changing world? Now more than ever, this question becomes important for museum leaders. A short list of museum “reasons for being” illustrates the quandary that we face.
- trusted educational resources.
- bastions of cultural hegemony and patriotism.
- wonderlands of entertainment and joy.
- repositories of knowledge and the collected “stuff” of the past.
- community hubs and gathering places.
- change agents for building a better society.
The stress of trying to be all things to all people has created a crisis of identity for us. How can museums carve out a unique niche in society by listening to our communities with empathy and by thinking critically about our purpose?
I believe that museums must, above all else, amuse and delight. Moreover, we do not need to apologize for making learning fun. As formal educators distance themselves from didactic presentations of content, it becomes even more critical for museums to differentiate ourselves from traditional classroom education.
Museums should be places of wonder and we best serve the public when we start with the foundational understanding that we are leisure-time options for people. When we begin there, the other multifarious purposes to which we aspire add a richness and depth to the foundation of fun that we have built.
Like most museums professionals, I tend to take myself and our work very seriously. We have important lessons to share with people about environmental change over time, global loss of species diversification, the history of oppression and resistance to oppression in the United States, and the healing emotional power of art. However, these well-intentioned messages are easily lost when we leave out the joy of play and the fun of amusement.
“But wait,” you say. “Staid, text-heavy exhibits and a ‘quiet please’ ethos have been under attack for well over twenty years in museums around the country.” Right you are. Interestingly, the shift towards amusement at museums is full-circle. While European museums—which became the guardians of “Western” culture and temples to Enlightenment knowledge—are certainly part of our inheritance and the history of museums with which we should grapple, circuses and cabinets of curiosity homegrown in the United States were more analogous to what we actually do today. A quote from way back in 1871 is illustrative.
“…Barnum’s Great Museum, Menagerie, Circus and Traveling World’s Fair [was successful in] pleasing the masses of people, delighting the young, and giving them visible lessons in natural history and natural science which they will never forget.”
Reading this quote, it is easy for us to make ourselves kin to this sentiment—pleasing the masses of people and delighting the young should be part of our DNA. And it wasn’t just P.T. Barnum who aimed to please.
In 1908, Frederic A. Lucas wrote, “Nowadays it is definitely recognized that while a museum is an eminently serious proposition, it will not be taken too seriously by visitors…it should provide ‘rational amusement’ for the many by whose funds it is largely supported.”
Just a year prior to Lucas’ distinction between how we view ourselves (seriously) and how the public views us (not seriously); anthropologist Franz Boas called to the carpet foolhardy museum professionals who thought that people came to their museums ready to studiously reflect and learn.
“It is a fond delusion of many museum officers that the attitude of the majority of the public is a more serious one, but a calm examination of the visitors passing through museum halls shows very clearly that the majority do not want anything beyond entertainment.”
Even earlier—in 1887—John George Wood griped that museums were too focused on pedagogy when what their audience really sought were entertaining diversions.
“I have long thought that in the management of our museums we have too much ignored the wants of the general public…scarcely one in a thousand enters the door of a museum as a student, the remainder doing so simply for amusement….”
We know through evaluation data that Lucas, Wood, Barnum, and Boas are still right. Visitors come to museums to learn AND to have fun. Falk and Dierking (2012), write that, “[the] education vs. entertainment argument is a false dichotomy…most museum visitors see learning and fun as a both-and rather than an either-or proposition.”
I’d like to posit that museums today are much better at education than we are at entertainment. It is time to reacquaint ourselves with amusement in order to provide the leisure-time experiences our audience expects.
Each of our museums has unique challenges, unique stories to tell, unique collections and a unique community in which we operate. Finding the fun will require careful listening and deliberate relationship-building within our communities. Relationships built on a shared language of trust and respect will yield important insights as we seek to design and develop entertaining new experiences and programs. An empathetic, conversational approach is the best starting place for this work.
Developing relationships is hard. When it is done well, it is an intensely humbling endeavor that will drag our museums into new and uncomfortable places. Must we always preserve our “authority” as experts? What do we uniquely bring to the table when we meet on equal terms with the community? Addressing these questions before we set out on the difficult journey of relationship-building will set us up for success long into the future and put us on the path to putting the amusement back into our museum.
About the Author
David B. Allison is the author of Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites (2016) and the Onsite Programs Manager at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He designs and develops experiences for guests of all ages and holds an MA in US History from IUPUI and an MBA from Regis University.
 The Khan Academy’s focus on project-based learning and flipped classrooms is but one manifestation of this trend. See http://www.npr.org/2017/08/11/541644282/sal-khan-can-technology-help-create-a-global-classroom for more information about this philosophy of education.
 Quoted from the Boston Evening Transcript, June 16, 1871 in John Rickards Betts, “P.T. Barnum and the Popularization of Natural History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 20, no. 3 (June-September, 1959): 353-368.
 Frederic A. Lucas, “Purposes and Aims of Modern Museums,” Proceedings of the Staten Island Association of Arts and Sciences 2 (1908): 119-124.
 Franz Boas, “Some Principles of Museum Administration,” Science 25 (1907): 921-933.
 John George Wood, “The Dulness [sic] of Museums,” The Nineteenth Century 21 (1887): 384-396.
 John Falk and Lynn Dierking, The Museum Experience Revisited, 2nd ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2012): 44.
 Thanks to Eddie Grogan at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park for this witty aphorism.