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Idiosyncracy as a museological virtue

Posted Mar 15 2010 12:33pm

Nina has a point — her favourite museums are idiosyncratic. There are lots of “perfectly nice, perfectly forgettable” museums, but those that stick in one’s memory are those with individuality, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology . They are often small, because they are not run by committees, and the staff is passionate about what they are doing.

Yet, as Ninas points out, most small idiosyncratic museums strive to become bigger and more mainstream rather than remain small, quirky and passionate and cultivating their idiosyncracy. She gives four reasons for this:

Funders and potential donors tend to look for particular benchmarks of professionalism (appropriately), and few are comfortable funding the most risky or content-specific institutions.

As money gets tight, museums look for exhibits, program strategies, and revenue streams that are “proven” by other institutions’ successes, rather than charting their own potentially risky path.

Many museums no longer employ in-house exhibit developers, relying instead on a short list of contractors and consultants. Design firms’ projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions.

Small museums, which are most likely to cultivate local, distinctive voice and approaches, often have an inferiority complex. Rather than asserting their uniqueness, they try to emulate large museums.

Science centers are among the worst. They have, Ninas suggests, three additional reasons for homogeneity:

The audience cycles frequently as families “age out.” Institutions may feel less of a need to offer something unusual or distinctive if the audience will keep refreshing every few years.

The content is often seen as not being community-specific. Science is science, and grocery store exhibits are grocery store exhibits. Funders like the NSF have encouraged science centers in particular to share their techniques and evaluations, which is fabulous but also leads to rampant and sometimes unthinking imitation.

These museums have undergone the fastest growth in the industry in the past thirty years. There is a big business of selling exhibits, copies of exhibits, and exhibit recipe books, and many individuals who start new institutions rely almost entirely on these vehicles to fill their galleries.

I certainly share Nina’s love of idiosyncratic institutions — and I can certainly see the risk of becoming bigger and more established. Can we keep the passion even though we are slowly growing?

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