The metaphor of metamorphosis is an apt lens to view museums through. From metamorphosis as “the visual aesthetic and structure of the early modern curiosity cabinet” (Bowry, 2014, p. 39) to the fluid nature of museums today, we can see museums as places and spaces responsive to cultural shifts in the time and place that they are situated. Bowry echoes this sentiment in the conclusion to her paper: “All claims to representation, and to knowledge, are constructed and situated–they only operate within a very precise context” (2014, p. 39). Similarly, Alexander and Alexander position museums as responsive, fluid, and ever-changing–seen from the start through the title of their book: Museums in Motion. In today’s context, we see conversations in the media about museums hint at the same sentiment. Both Shevenock (“Why Museums Weathered the Pandemic Better than Most–and Where They’re Headed Next”) and Wyld (“Are Museums on the Brink of Extinction After COVID-19?” ) turn to the idea of evolution when tackling questions of how museums have responded to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s no doubt that museums have evolved over time, responding to the interests and needs of their communities. What is interesting to me today is the shift toward participatory engagement in museum spaces. As mentioned in Museums in Motion, John Kuo Wei Tchen asserts: “… museums and their exhibitions ‘must be done in tandem with the people the history is about… personal memory and testimony inform and are informed by historical context and scholarship’” (1994, p. 13). Tchen’s point continues conversations around how museums can best serve their communities and their audience(s), as we saw last week with Nina Simon. Though Simon touched more on how to engage visitors in participatory activities, Tchen goes further in making the case for participatory planning. As Alexander and Alexander mention, “We ‘museumify’ other cultures and our own past” (1994, p. 12). When engaging people whose lived experiences are represented in a museum or exhibition, we bring a richer experience to audiences. It seems as though many museums today, as part of their evolution, are grappling with questions of representation and inclusivity, responsive to many similar conversations seen in media and literature alike in the 21st century. Museums “exist for the things we put in them, and they change as each generation chooses how to see and use those things” (Alexander and Alexander, 1994, p. 12). It seems as though this generation is calling for museums to be responsive to the communities they serve–to be accessible, inclusive, diverse, and engaging. Though Shevenock and Wyld didn’t have a decisive answer on where museums are going next, they both agree that museums are ever-evolving and more essential than ever.