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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Why Museums Do What They Do

by Greg Koos
McLean County Museum of History, Bloomington, Illinois
The opinions stated below are the author's and not those of the McLean County Museum of History)

This essay will explore the structure of museums in America in order to help the readers of Turkotek understand why we do what we do. I have worked in museums since 1977, as an archivist, curator, building restoration supervisor and now as an administrator. My museum is located in a small midwestern city and has an on-line presence. For what it is worth, I started studying rugs in order to better understand six rugs found in a historic house site that we own. As it turned out, we have four nice Belouchs - one from the 19th century, a fine (but worn) 19th century Ladik, a commercially produced early 20th century Karabagh and a late 19th century rug from eastern Anatolia. My ability to determine the origin of these rugs is due to the work of rug collectors who have been so generous with their knowledge. The people who contribute to discussion on such sites as Turkotek and the compilations developed by Ron O'Callaghan and Barry O'Connell have been exceptionally valuable in developing my ability to even think about rugs as a subject. And now I'm hopelessly hooked (or should I say that I'm "knots" about them?). One further note, I am not posting this essay in order to host a discussion whose purpose is to take shots at the Textile Museum. I am hoping to help the reader to understand why this fine museum, like many others, does what it does.

Museums are organized to discover objects, collect them, preserve them and use them for educational purposes. We differ from many other institutions in the fact that we are object oriented. In order to accomplish this mission we organize as permanent institutions who expect to carry out our mission in perpetuity, which, I like to say, is a very long time. This essay will explore how this mission is reflected by policies to which most museums adhere. Finally I will explore how these concepts are changing.

In the United States, most museums founded in the period 1875-1975 were developed through the actions of voluntary movements, such as collectors, heritage groups or scientific societies. These entities typically incorporated as not-for-profit voluntary organizations in order to perpetuate their interests beyond the lives of the founders. Collecting and preserving their collections was central to their organization. The public quickly recognized the educational value of these institutions. Because their public service potential was so quickly realized, museums took advantage of provisions in law which recognized education as a charitable activity. By becoming charitable organizations, museums left the private world of voluntary association and entered the public world, in essence taking the "kings shilling." Financial and material contributions to a museum are recognized by government as activity of public good. Government recognizes this public good with tax policy. Museums are now widely recognized as trustees of the public patrimony - our common and shared treasures. In this role we have become accountable to the public through the development of professional standards of conduct and operation. We are self-regulating and have requirements of transparency. That is, our activities are rightfully open to public scrutiny. This legal stance is central to all of our decision making.

Lets see how this position effects our functions. "To discover" is to ask questions that lead to the identification of a discrete set of objects from which knowledge can be gained. In order to save the knowledge, the objects must be saved and preserved. This allows later generations to challenge our beliefs by examining the same set of objects. This is why museums have developed policies and procedures regarding collecting, management and care. Most museums have established a collections policy which describes the kinds of objects they will collect. These policies are very helpful in sharpening the focus of a collecting institution. They also can cause some public misunderstandings. For instance the Textile Museum is far more than a rug museum, although we (this discussion group) value them most for that specific collection.

When institutions sharpen their focus they also tend to improve their policies and procedures for accessioning objects into their collections and deaccessioning objects from the collections. Accessioning an object which has been accepted is a formal process in which an object's ownership as well provenance or origin is established. Objects are registered, a unique control number assigned, and they are described with conditions noted. Depending on a museum's resources this may include photography and conservation. Simply adding an object to a collection is a time-consuming process.

Once placed in a collection, a museum has a responsibility to ensure the preservation of the object. We consider our collections to be permanent. Therefore, our objects must survive as long as human ingenuity will allow; thus, the fabled persnickety curator or conservator. We have asked them to stop the forces of entropy - a large task.

The educational use of the object is also an important consideration. Clearly, public benefit is central to our missions. Conflicts may arise in this area between those who preserve and those who educate. This can be seen in conflicts of conservator vs. curator or curator vs. public. These debates are healthy and necessary. Through them we learn to set parameters for exhibition standards, examination of objects by the public and publication in paper or electronic formats. This area was the hot button of reaction to Sara Wolf's essay. Museums will establish policies for exhibition and public access based upon the best evidence available to them. They will also change these policies should the evidence change.

Deaccessioning or removal of an object from a collection is also a highly controlled process. Typically it must first be established that the object is non-relevant, duplicate or deteriorated to a point where it has lost its integrity. Museums can't and shouldn't keep everything. The process for making these determinations involve collections managers, conservators, curators, administration and trustees. When an object is brought into a collection it enters a sheltered world of public trust. When an object is removed from a collection issues of public trust must be considered. Many institutions first try to find another museum to take the object before the object is released to the public at auction. However, when high money value is at stake institutions will go for the money. The possibility for corruption and insider dealing is very much present here. You can imagine the possibilities. Most scandals involving museums take place during this process. For this reason most of us are reluctant to publicly associate ourselves with the sale of our objects. Another factor is important here. We do not believe it is essential to assign a dollar value to our holdings. This is because we keep objects for their value in terms of knowledge or aesthetics, not their value in terms of dollars. As a result of this we can be quite naive about the economic worth of our collections.

Money issues are the most troublesome matters a museum struggles with. Because of our origin as voluntary associations, for the most part we are privately supported. In many cases this results in museums working with very limited resources. The fact that much of the public believe that museums are owned and staffed by rich dilettantes results from the fact that, for aesthetic reasons, we create attractive and rich-looking facilities, that house valuable and interesting objects. It all looks like money, serious money. For this reason discussions of our ability to provide various services based on cost is met with much skepticism.

Most museums have success in developing funds for facility creation. We have less success in developing money to operate these facilities. Well managed museums establish broad bases of support through: membership or annual-giving programs, endowment funds, government grants and stipends, admissions and store sales. Few museums are supported by just one or two of these categories. The single highest cost for most museums is staffing (not that museums pay particularly highly). A museum that pays well, is paying staff at the same levels as public school teachers are paid. Most pay their staff well below this level. This is not a complaint, it is an observation. After staffing, museums costs are spread through their programs including facility costs, exhibition costs, education program costs and marketing costs. The latter is quite interesting. As museums emulate entrepreneurship models, they find themselves "buying" their audiences. That is, a direct correlation does not exist between program development and marketing and resulting income. The profits from expanded audiences come from better-motivated donors and government entities.

The implications of this for the collector community is serious. Having vital intuitions that provide desired services takes commitments from all sectors. During Sara's discussion I quoted a museum saying: Suggestions accompanied by a check are often followed. This was read by some as elitist. It does not mean that everything that happens in a museum results from rich-donor initiative. Core activities are supported through the general income base. However, extra activity is often promoted by donors. Without these extra gifts much would be left undone. Many museums have developed friends groups, guilds and such which pool the resources of many to achieve desired projects.

Museums are currently conducting intensive self-scrutiny. We are concerned that we have not reached proper levels of institutional transparency and that our missions are becoming irrelevant. Stephen Weil, Emeritus Senior Scholar, Center for Museum Studies, Smithsonian Institution, is leading much of the discussion of these issues. He is asserting that for museums to survive they must "be for somebody, not about something." This plea asks museums to view themselves as entities whose primary purpose is public service. He believes that without this redirection of focus that museums will be subject to serious questions concerning their charitable status and that their inability to articulate public good may cause serious erosion in donor support. Institutional transparency is also a need that is being addressed. Museum decision-making concerning financial management, collections management, policies of public access and such are the public's business. Many of the issues raised during Sara's essay were to these points. You are correct to ask. However, in order to ask effectively, you must join other stakeholders in supporting institutions you hold dear.