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Collections in the 21st Century

March 24, 2011

by Brad King

The spectrum of interpretive approaches to museum collections

The following is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of Lord Cultural Resources’ online publication, Cultural Capital.

Are collections still at the heart of museums? If so, will that continue to be true in the future, and in what ways?

Both the definitions and uses for collections have been expanding. Although art museums still present works of art for sheer aesthetic pleasure, the diagram to the left presents a broad range of options for science, history and natural history museums, with one axis considering the spectrum of interpretive approaches, and the other the array of collection types from intangible to tangible. More traditional methods are found in the lower right-hand section, where interpretation tends to emphasize tangible collections used in didactic ways. Newer approaches are represented by the upper left-hand side of the diagram, where more interactivity and direct engagement with the visitor and less emphasis on tangible collections is the rule.

Along with changes in the ways collections are defined and used, there are ongoing changes in collection development practices. The enormous cost and effort of developing a ‘traditional’ collection – and the heavy cost of ongoing management and care – means that many new museums approach the issue very carefully indeed. The decision to collect is never taken lightly, and even when the answer is ‘yes’, acquisitions are often intended for display only.

But this does not necessarily mean that collections are becoming less relevant. Many leaders in the field are involved in re-visioning existing institutions or creating completely new ones, with a focus on how collections (however the term may be defined) can support their institution’s mission. Mission is the key, and as institutional missions evolve, so too does the understanding and use of their collections. As missions evolve – as museums focus on contemporary issues, search for ways t o make themselves continually relevant, and seek to engage visitors and encourage them to explore their personal creativity – they will find creative ways of building collections and using existing resources. And they will continue to tap into the enduring power of the authentic, whether represented tangibly or intangibly.

Access the complete Winter/Spring 2011 issue of Cultural Capital at http://www.lord.ca/CulturalCapital/Spring2011/index.html

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Brad King

About The Author

Brad King is a Vice President at Lord Cultural Resources.

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