Museums Response 1: Alexander Chapters 1-6
Museums as an entity encompass a wide variety of institutions ranging from the traditional observation and appreciation of collections, to interactive areas for informal learning. There are many different types of museums that specialize based on content, subject, collections, type of visitors, or just eclectic informal public interactivity areas. Some museums seem to be curative and preservative as well as to be exhibitory, while others focus on the interactivity between the visitor and the museum collection or exhibits. Some maintain collections or aspire to serve as places for serious academic research or discourse, while others exist primarily to serve local community needs or to encourage society to enrich itself in a particular area of specialization.
The advent of “edutainment” and need for interactivity along with the entrance of the information age and the internet have profoundly affected the manner in which many types of museums organize and maintain their focus for the public. The role of the museum seems to be shifting towards not only preservation and exhibition, but also as a springboard cheerleader for focusing public attention on topics related to their unique mission.
The historical context presented for each of the major types of museums shows the similarities and differences in style, development, mission and public interest in creating and maintaining these types of museums.
Born out of a seemingly innate human need to organize our own world in order to comprehend it more detail, the early history of most museums involved wealthy patrons with the resources to collect and preserve items of value to human society. Often these would offer glimpses into our history through natural, artistic, or anthropological perspectives. Others may have shown the history of our world in terms of nature, science, or interaction and development of various types of organisms. These varied museum collections evolved into public trust institutions in order to garner more support and to disseminate their message and goals. Thus, by necessity, many became essentially educational institutions. This seems to have elicited a need for experts who not only collected and cataloged items, but who also could provide modern methods and techniques of interpretation for the average visitor. From this group of interpreters, a shift seems to have occurred in which museums aspired to be more “user friendly” and then capable of attracting more visitors and ultimately more financial support.
Thus, the concept of a museum was widened to encompass areas for public informal learning and exploration including such institutions as interactive science “centers” and living-history re-enactment areas. These “immersive” environments were offered to public patrons to enhance their experience ultimately leading to more educational value and greater understanding of the underlying principles and focus of the particular museum. The Franklin Institute and the Exploratorium were some of the first U.S. pioneers of scientific interactivity, and such places as Colonial Williamsburg provide entire park-like settings allowing visitors to experience and take part in all aspects of the era of history being portrayed.
Similarly, a shift in natural history museums has provided more concern about living specimens and a need to view organisms as part of an entire ecosystem rather than oddities pulled out for human study and amusement. Botanical gardens, natural history museums, zoos, and other museums that depict living relationships now strive to show the connectivity and elicit greater understanding through interpretive displays.
In short, the museum field is both wide and deep, today encompassing a large variety of institutions serving the public with a full plate of choices. Although the focus of some may have shifted, these museums continue to serve the needs of a population hungry for novel and educational