Making Museums Public vs. Making Museum Publics

In talking about public humanities, our first question is always how do we make humanities public? And the question, as identified in these readings, is always a structural one. Especially in the Bandelli and Williams article, the shifts occurring in the museological sphere emphasize changing the hierarchical structures and levels of authority in museum staffing. The article identifies giving a public a voice within the decision-making process, while still upholding reliability and trustworthiness – as key to making museums democratic spaces.

Hein’s identification of the museum as an artifact, “a product of collective human design,” uses language of private, non-private, public to negotiate similar structural issues to viewing art. In discussing critical public art, Hein starts to address the idea of how engagement in the artistic discourse as a form of self-discovery strengthens contemporary memorial art. While Hein’s focus is also more structural than I care for, the mediation of an everyday perception of the world seems to me the most important aspect of our work as public humans.

My central question: Are we talking about making museums public, or is this a discussion about making museum publics? Are we still focused on getting “the public” in the door, or getting them to come back? Thinking of Warner’s idea that anyone coming in contact with “the discourse” and chooses to engage becomes a part of a public, I think only Hein’s approach starts to deconstruct this notion. (Even then, I’m not sure it’s going far enough.) We can make these structural changes in which “the public” is incorporated into the engagement structures of the museum, but in what ways can we use other disciplines to improve upon the discourse we’re presenting? This is where Bandelli’s point re: valuing different knowledge formations (cognitive, experiential, and social) comes into play. Similarly, this is what Canclini starts to address in Chapter 4 around the opposition of sacred/profaned past. In what ways can we shape the existing publics of a museum to look beyond these ideas of conservation, preservation, or temporal culture? Is that even really what’s at stake? How do we center the negotiation of making culture as the role of museums in a different way? Are the structural issues really the ones that need work – how does content factor into all of this?

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