One of the most common questions I’m asked when I tell people I work is museums is:
“What do you do every day?”
The more patient individuals will sometimes humour me as I reel off a long, complex list of all my different duties at the two museums I work at. Many museum and heritage professionals like myself need to take a flexible, jack-of-all-trades attitude towards their jobs.
Yet to the general public, museums and galleries are sometimes seen as places that are disconnected from the passage of time. While the world is constantly in flux, many arts and heritage institutions appear to represent timelessness; permanent rocky outcrops of static knowledge with rivers of people and events cascading and eddying around them. It therefore comes as no surprise that many people feel they only need to visit a particular museum, gallery, or heritage site once to experience everything it has to offer. At the two museums I currently work at in Metro Vancouver, repeat visitors are often surprised by how much has changed since their previous visit – even if that occasion was 30 or 40 years ago.
As any museum professional or avid visitor knows, most museums are as fluid and changeable as the communities in which they reside. Travelling and temporary exhibitions come and go, special events bring new activities and experiences, education programs for children and adults evolve to meet changing educational needs, and interpretive staff infuse each tour and visitor interaction with their own unique personality. Perhaps most important of all, each visit to a museum is made unique by the individual visitor themselves – their current interests, past experiences, and demographic may change their perspective and what they hope to gain from their visit. It has often been said that books belong, not to their creators, but to the people who read them. I would argue the same is true for visitors and museums. A museum experience is a very personal thing, shaped by the evolving priorities and interests of each individual visitor. Thus, as communities change, so too do the museums that tell their stories.
The challenge for those of us who work for these institutions is to communicate that to the general public. Though many museums, galleries, and heritage sites may present objects or stories from the past, as institutions they are as modern and mutable as the people and communities who support them.
And just like a free-flowing river, that is a powerful thing indeed.