Museums are… what exactly? A technical definition is something that is still kind of had to pin down – no matter what official bodies like the Museums Association or the ICOM say, there is always something that insists on being an exception.
However, there is an organisation that has more cultural clout than both of these put together. One that both reflects and guides what people are thinking, and how they come to these conclusions. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am of course talking about the all-powerful Google.
To avoid any bias, for I google museum-y things a lot, I signed out of my gmail. After that, I took to GoogleUK to ask that fundamental question “Museums are…”
The top two results are a bit worrying. According to Google, museums are “a waste of money” and “boring.”
Considering in the UK we are culturally spoiled with so many world-class free museums, who would think that they could be a waste of money? If you follow that search through to its conclusion you’ll find a few school debate topics discussing that issue and a BBC news article asking if museums deserve more public money from 2004.
So, what does this tell us?
It tells us that although many museums are free, it is something that is always questioned. I’m sure some of the ticket prices for those blockbuster exhibitions (£16 for Vikings at the British Museum and the V&A’s Bowie blockbuster was something comparable) are making people ask “Is it worth it?”.
What about those other results?
Museums are boring? I don’t think so, but understand that some people find them yawn-inducing.
Museums are us? Such a lovely thought!
Museums are collections of artefacts, although… There is so much more to them.
What about Google.com?
One thing about Google is that it gives you different results based on which version you use, with that in mind, I thought I’d see how the American version differed from the UK’s.
Here are the results.
As the US doesn’t have the free museum culture that we are lucky enough to have in the UK, I was expecting the “Museums are a waste of money” result to crop up again but it doesn’t.
Does this mean that Americans see museums as intrinsically valuable?
The main difference in these results is the rather intriguing “Museums are where art goes to die”.
This is strange as museums are about more than just art! They are history, science, all sorts of things and perhaps for these that’s OK? The suggestion that museums are the death of art is a bit off, surely if anything is responsible for the death of art it’s commercialism? Nothing kills the artistic vision quite like selling out.
Maybe this can be used as a chance to reflect on what can kill art – too much interpretation, perhaps?
The search result could be a commentary on a perceived idea that museums are where old things go to fester and stagnate whilst being gawped at by hoards of tourists.
With this in mind, those of us who work in museum should take a step back and ask ourselves “Are we making this accessible or are we smothering our subject?”
I know from working in and with museums that museums aren’t places where things go to die; they are places where things come alive! Let’s see if we can change what Google says about us!