“What is a Museum?” by Theodore L. Low

Target First Saturday at Brooklyn Museum. Image: Eric via Flickr

In “You’ve Gotta Read…” we take a closer look at an article or other piece of writing that provokes deeper thinking about the challenges or opportunities that institutions face. In this first installment, we look at “What is A Museum?” an essay by Theodore Low, published as part of his monograph, The Museum as Social Instrument. Considering the recent controversy regarding the new proposed definition of the museum in the International Council of Museums (ICOM), it would seem that we are still collectively struggling to answer the question posed in the title of Low’s article 80 years after the article was written in 1942. It is hard for anyone revisiting this piece not to see it as a wake-up call.

“That education, however, must be active, not passive, and it must always be intimately connected with the life of the people.”

Written while he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s education department, “What Is a Museum?” argues for an understanding of the museum as, first and foremost, a democratic educational institution for the people. He aligns himself with the growing adult education movement and declares that the purpose and the only purpose of museums is education in all its varied aspects, from the most scholarly research to the simple arousing of curiosity. That education, however, must be active, not passive, and it must always be intimately connected with the life of the people.” It is a dream that many of us still share today.

One of the important aspects of the museum that Low takes issue with, on a systemic level, is the general unwillingness to part with the notion that education can be relegated to a single isolated department. Bringing museums to the future, he argues, requires a new concept of what it means to educate. Whether it pertains to literature, theater, film, sports, or other forms of culture, Low argues that education is simply that which can “increase the knowledge, happiness, and experience of the individual,” and should permeate all aspects of a museum experience.

we are still trying to overcome the idea that real knowledge sits largely within its curatorial departments and that the teams of educators and programmers are simply there to follow suit.

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Hammer Museum have embraced what some call more populist practices in their content and programming, but these remain an exception. As Low tried to do in his time, we are still trying to overcome the idea that real knowledge sits largely within its curatorial departments and that the teams of educators and programmers are simply there to follow suit. With education undergoing substantial change around the world as a result of changes in our economies and the increasing applications of technology, the time seems right to take these shifts in culture around us as opportunities to expand what we mean when we say education.

Striving to gain knowledge will continue to take on a different significance and shape in a world where we always have information at our fingertips. This does not lessen the importance of a museum’s role in safeguarding art and cultural artifacts. Rather, it becomes clearer that instead of teaching “at” people, cultural institutions can focus more on how visitors of all backgrounds actually experience being there and in the world. Perhaps now is finally the time in which often stilted collaboration between curatorial and education departments gets replaced by a deeply integrated contribution to education as Low sees it—a more expansive “education” that encompasses critical thinking, happiness, curiosity, and general well-being.

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