Two interesting reports came across my desk over the break that address this key question...

What are museums for? This is the age-old question museums have been grappling with for years, and in times of rapid change, shrinking resources, increased competition and more powerful consumers, it appears that this is an even more urgent question that our sector needs to resolve.

Behind the scenes in Mammalogy
Behind the scenes in Mammalogy Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Two recent reports have looked at this very issue. In What are museums for?, Nick Poole, UK Collections Trust CEO, explored the role of museums through an analysis of 40 UK museums' mission statements. The wordle (below and also here) is a neat way to summarise the key concepts of People; Collections; Future; World; Understanding; Learning; Public; Enjoyment; National and Access.

However, as I was reading this I was wondering what the wordle might look like from the user/consumer perspective (for example, try typing "museums are" into the Google search box and see what happens...)?

The second, What do non profits stand for? reports on research from the Nonprofit Listening Post Project, Johns Hopkins University, into seven features commonly associated with the nonprofit sector: "being productive, effective, enriching, empowering, responsive, reliable, and caring". To me one of the more interesting findings was that "62 percent of respondents acknowledged that the nonprofit sector does a poor job of articulating its special qualities to people outside the sector ... [appearing] that a significant part of the responsibility for the limited understanding of the nonprofit sector’s core values on the part of key external stakeholders lies with the sector itself."

On reflection, I am now thinking that we are asking the wrong question: not What are museums for / stand for?, but Who are museums for? It was the wise museum sage, Stephen Weil, that declared back in 1999 that museums must transform themselves from “… being about something to being for somebody” and, more recently, Seb Chan in Museums of the Future, who stated that “the museum of the future needs a public to demand and desire it”.