Inspiring museums

In Museums on February 26, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Inspiration is a word that comes up from time to time in museum talk. Museums and galleries often say they want to inspire people.
What do we mean by ‘inspiration’?

Dictionary definitions of inspiration talk about ‘supposed forces, influences, stimulation and arousal’. Well, I do believe that museums can have a strong and direct impact on our lives, but let’s hang on there a moment.

I think what we really mean when we talk about visitor inspiration in museums is that we want to motivate people to think something or do something.

It would be overambitious to suggest that museums need to ought to change people’s lives completely. Or that a visit to a museum is going to be the greatest thing you ever do. But given than museums hold unique things, often with amazing stories behind them, it’s not fanciful to think that objects can be agents of change in visitors’ lives.

Of course museums do hold lots of – how do I put this politely? – mundane or unsexy objects in their collections. (Note, I’ve not used the word ‘boring’ – one person’s pot sherd is another person’s PhD.) And there’s no reason to suggest that every object is going to be a life changer.

But surely our objects – and the ways in which we interpret them – can be inspirational.

We could inspire our visitors to do rather simple things like buying a book (or a piece of fudge in the shape of a sarcophagus) in the gift shop; going to a website; doing some independent follow-up research; having a conversation etc. Or we could even seek to inspire people to join a movement; to go on a journey; to pursue a career; to change the world; to start a revolution.

Okay, I got a bit carried away again there. But you get the point.

Museums can do more than just giving people didactic learning outcomes. Let’s be inspirational and communicate much more than just plain old knowledge.


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