What words will we use to create the new museum?

“There’s more to every story.” This is the tagline for the evocatively named “Newseum,” which opened in Washington, D.C. in the United States in 2008. The name is on its surface a superbly brutal pun, teasing at its mission to celebrate the freedom of the press and the First Amendment. But it also promises something else – a new museum that will shake up assumptions about what a museum is supposed to be. I have never been to the Newseum, but its name and five-word tagline have already communicated that I should expect something more than the usual from its exhibitions, programming and collections.

Put simply, the words that museum choose to describe themselves and to conduct their work matter. They tell us about their goals, their vision about who they are and what their mission is. And they are interpreted by the public independently, sometimes before they even enter the doors. Can changing the words museums choose to use also change the way we interact with these institutions? And can thinking critically about language show us where these organizations are falling short of their own ambitions?

Richard Rinehart uses the example of “users vs. visitors” in examining the professional jargon libraries and museums respectively fall into. He says: “Libraries call their customers “users,” implying that they actively make use of the library’s collections, while museums call their customers “visitors,” implying that they are just passing through and it would be inappropriate for them to touch anything” (2014: 93). Similarly, the tendency to use the word “tombstones” as a short-hand for brief, identifying labels, (usually a title, artist, and date), reinforces the understanding that museum collections are dead, inert, and inactive. This runs counter to how anthropologists understand objects as being able to influence people to react to their presence or experience an emotion. It is also not how many Indigenous peoples understand their heritage which, while often stored in museum collections, are still very meaningful to contemporary people still alive today. These examples show how language choices communicate particular understandings that can run counter to what museums want to teach their visitors.

In thinking about digital media within museums, I’ve been very interested how popular the word “open” is in these conversations. It is often used interchangeably with “accessible” or “public,” and I see it most frequently in reference to projects digitizing museum collections, with the assumption that this provides everyone with an equal, hierarchy-free opportunity to engage with the museum. Yet as Joel Taylor and Laura Kate Gibson argue, digitization to create open collections are not automatically free of power hierarchies; in fact, by replicating already existing language choices and values, they can reinforce non-democratic structures (2016: 409). To me, an open museum does not just mean accessibility. It implies a level of vulnerability, discomfort and giving up of control and authority.

If open truly is the word the museum field wants to commit to, let’s do it right. Can we put collections online in databases knowing their records may not be perfect, and allowing the public to question, challenge and revise records (Rowley 2013)? Can we use language that addresses how collections make visitors, museum staff and descent community members feel about them (Krmpotich & Somerville 2016)? Let’s interrogate the language these institutions use and pick words that communicate what kind of new museum we want to create for the future.

Works Cited

Krmpotich, Cara, and Alexander Somerville. 2016. “Affective Presence: The MetonymicalCatalogue.” Museum Anthropology 39 (2): 178–91.

Rinehart, Richard. 2014. “Chapter 7: The Open Museum.” in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, edited by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Rowley, Susan. 2013. “The Reciprocal Research Network: The Development Process.” Museum Anthropology Review 7 (1–2): 22–43.

Taylor, Joel, and Laura Kate Gibson. 2016. “Digitisation, Digital Interaction and Social Media: Embedded Barriers to Democratic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 0 (0): 1–13.

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