This guest post is contributed by Allyson Lazar, museum consultant and freelance registrar based in Los Angeles, Calif. You can follow Allyson’s musings at her blog Two Ls and A Y.
Reporter Sandra Hughes of CBS ends her video article “Bringing Art to the People” with these words, "For the rest of us we can just hope that museums can find a way to stay afloat while we have fun with the art." So when all is said and done, with changing demographics and funding priorities, with furor over permanent collections and how to manage them and what it means—or what it should mean—to be and have curators, what can and will museums do to stay afloat?
Mikku Wilenius of Allianz, a forecasting company in Europe, predicts that the future will belong to companies that serve as aggregators of information, such as Google or websites that can offer consumers different best-price offers.
Let's think about this prediction in terms of museums: what would it look like for a museum to serve as an aggregator—or would a museum simply be part of a network that formed an aggregator? An alliance such as the one just announced between five museums in Georgia might be a model for what that might look like. The High Museum of Art, the Albany Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum, the Telfair Museum of Art and the Georgia Museum of Art have joined together to form the Georgia Art Museum Partnership, an initiative that will "allow for the sharing of resources and collections among museums in Georgia and the Southeast."
What does that mean, practically speaking? Well, it could mean that visitors and members have access not just to the information, collections, programs, exhibits and expertise of one museum but all five. But what is especially interesting is that this partnership is actually much more internally focused than externally: the initiative in part will include workshops on topics such as fundraising, public relations, exhibit design and collaborations between curators and educators that will allow staff from all five institutions to "share ideas, receive feedback and relay successes." In essence, the initiative will start to build a network of shared resources with each of the five museums as a network hub.
There is a precedent already for museums as nodes of a larger web rather than individual stand-alone institutions. Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands, views itself as an integral part of an expanding network that brings its building, collections and scientific research to the network as assets, rather than a center around which a network may or may not revolve. Natural history museums here in the States are recognizing the need and value of seeing themselves as nodes rather than individual entities as well. The Biodiversity Collections Index allows researchers access to specimens and collections around the world through a collaborative effort of museums and research facilities. As the BCI website states, "Research into biodiversity relies on the use of specimens. These specimens are held in reference collections around the world. BCI is a central index to these collections."
Perhaps the best way for museums to stay relevant--and open--will be to take a page from the libraries and become better integrated and networked not just with our visitors, but with each other as well.
Or not. Maybe it's still too soon to see, maybe any attempt at solving these grand issues will turn out to be nothing more than a desperate search for a panacea that isn't there--that is, that any of these approaches will turn out to be not as far-reaching as we hope. As Andras Szanto puts it in this article, "Digesting the full cultural implications of a once-in-a-generation event like the Great Recession will take years, even decades. In the meantime, museum leaders have an opportunity to frame new visions for the future." Let's just hope that our leaders will seize upon that opportunity.