Museums: Houses of education

Who evaluates museum quality? Visitors’ attendance is definitely a factor, but not the surest criterion. Professor Emeritus at Lesley University in the US George Hein, who has founded an institution that probes deeply into museums’ characters and the services they provide, was recently in Greece. A guest of the US Embassy in Athens, he spoke at a conference at the Jewish Museum and talked to Kathimerini about the importance of museums today. What is the role of museums today? In my opinion, museums are first and foremost educational institutions, whether their exhibits are about art, science or history. Just like schools, their roots can be traced to the 18th century, when the idea of public education and the notion that nation states have responsibilities toward society were structured; I support John Dewey’s theory, meaning that education’s main goal is morality, which varies according to the different needs of society. If we are talking about a democratic society, then education’s main aim is to support democracy and to create active citizens who will have critical minds, will ask the necessary questions, will doubt authority and will be willing to participate in various procedures. Museums have pretty much a similar role in a democratic society, except that they don’t need to follow any fixed educational program like schools do. Access must be free to everyone. They must reflect the same ideals as the society which they represent. That means museums are obliged to look into their principles, their structure and the way they work: Are they accessible to all citizens? Are all sectors of the population represented on the staff? Are there any issues of racism or exclusion? Over the past few decades, huge changes have taken place in museums through the use of technology. Do we learn more at museums today than we used to? Museums today are very much based on technology and have new methods of presentation, either on their own premises or on the Internet. Sometimes the use of these methods strengthens the museums’ entertaining aspect, but not necessarily the educational aspect, while in other cases it can contribute to a museum’s improvement. For instance, it can facilitate people’s access. I think that the effect of a visit to a museum is long-term, rather than short-term. We often think about what we saw after we have returned home. We may even be motivated to learn more and visit the museum’s website to read more about what we found interesting. I believe one of the main issues museums are concerned with today is being more visitor-friendly and making the average visitor feel very important. We must also remember that museums have recently been greatly affected by problems in economy, fear of terrorism and the increase in insurance fees and have therefore developed their marketing skills… If you were to construct a museum, what would it be like? There is no such thing as the ideal museum, simply because you can never please all visitors. If I created such an institution, it would inevitably reflect my beliefs, where I come from and my vision. In general, I think museums can convey very powerful messages, as long as they have a precise point of reference. Visitors should understand what a museum is about as soon as they have entered. I will give you an example. Someone in Denmark founded a small museum after collecting all kinds of animals that live there. It is his own personal museum. One of my favorite museums is a museum dedicated to George Washington that contains some of his personal objects. Sometimes museums don’t realize how important it is to focus somewhere. Many museums today attract visitors solely on the basis of the building they are housed in, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Is the message to be found in a museum’s exterior or interior? I don’t think we can distinguish between the exterior and the exhibits. The shell is a construction that helps shape the message. The first museums were founded in imperialist countries and were housed in buildings with Greek pillars. That is how they demonstrated their power. Over the past 20-30 years, museums that want to show they have a high sense of aesthetics hire famous architects to design their buildings. A building always makes a statement about a society’s values.