What Does it Mean to Have “Museumness?”

For my Digital History class last week I was assigned a reading by Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis entitled “A methodology for the design of online exhibitions.” Generally speaking, the authors have a lot of good ideas for museum exhibit designers, and the article is solid. They correctly point out that when creating a museum exhibit–whether physical or virtual–designers must take into account the audience they want to cater their content to. Within the minds of a museum audience lies a collection of competing desires for learning, entertainment, and socialization from exhibits. These needs drive an audience’s purpose for attending a museum in the first place, and I get the impression from this article that the implementation of digital technology into a museum’s exhibits has brought a sharper focus to the question of how a museum meets the needs of its audience. Whereas museums of the late 19th and early 20th century could often put a large collection of artifacts on display along with a descriptive label to fulfill the museum “experience” (making personal discoveries about the past), modern museum exhibit designers understand that their audiences often seek connections to artifacts through digital technology. Audiences have expectations about what they want to learn and how they want to see information, and finding that correct balance between tangible and virtual must always be on the designer’s mind. Furthermore, designers understand that digital technology has the potential to enhance or harm the quality of their exhibits, depending on how that technology is used.

The authors also attempt to create specific exhibit design methodologies for different types of museums (Zoos, Archaeological, Art, Science, History, etc.). They correctly argue that visitors’ perceptions and expectations of a museum are largely dependent on the type of museum they visit, and that these perceptions will determine whether learning, entertainment, or socialization will be the primary focus of a museum’s physical and digital exhibits. In order to differentiate these museum types, the authors utilize the term museumness in their discussion:

The term museumness is introduced in order to describe visitors’ perceptions on a certain physical or virtual space and whether this space forms a typical museum or not. Museumness does not form a yes or no category; rather it suggests a continuum that different museum types can have higher or lower scores. For example, visitors might consider both an archaeological museum and an art gallery as museums, but of different degree of museumness, since the former collects all the stereotypical characteristics that form the notions of museums and the latter contains fewer of those characteristics.

And now I’m lost.

I understand that there are different types of museums that exist, but what’s the point of giving them higher or lower “scores?” It appears to me that the authors are being contradictory in suggesting that a “typical museum with stereotypical characteristics” even exists while arguing that there are many different types of museums. It is also rather presumptuous to suggest that museums are some sort of static entity that never changes over time. When we speak of “typical museums” and “stereotypical characteristics,” what time period are we referring to? What was the “typical museum” to an average visitor in the 20th Century and what does it mean to us today? What are the “stereotypical characteristics” of a museum, especially when acknowledging the wide diversity of museums that exist? What are the “stereotypes” that visitors hold about museums, and how accurate are those stereotypes in actuality? How can an archaeological museum have a higher degree of “museumness” than an art museum, and why is such a distinction necessary? How can such a point be qualified, quantified, or verified? If, say, a zoo’s primary mission is to entertain, rather than educate, does that somehow make it less of a museum than an art museum? Haven’t museums always sought to entertain their audiences to some degree? Does entertainment somehow cheapen the museum experience?

I could go on, but I digress. In sum, we’ve been given a new term without having it properly defined and explained to us. I have no idea what these people are trying to argue or why I should add the word “museumness” to my lexicon. Again, I understand that different museums have different audiences and different needs that should be filled by the exhibits created by a specific museum, but I don’t know how ranking these museums based on a high or low “museumness” scoresheet helps me accomplish that goal. This article helps us think of ways in which we can create more effective museum exhibits physically and online, but the authors do a poor job of defining the key terms used in their argument, which compromises the overall quality of their essay, in my estimation. If you’re going to use new, revisionist terms in your argument, you must make every effort to define, explain, and clarify to your audience what exactly you’re trying to say.

Perhaps I am missing something here. Any feedback is appreciated.