The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Museums for a New Century: A Report of the Commission on Museums for a New Century.

Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1984. Illustrations. Index. Sidebars. Appendices. 146 pages. $13.95 paperbound (members). $17.95 paperbound (non-members).

Reviewed by Vincent Moses, Curator of History, City of Riverside Historic Resources Department, and Treasurer for The California Committee for the Promotion of History.

“No longer elite preserves, museums now are part of a popular movement in which more Americans attend cultural events than professional sports. But museums can do more, and this report shows how.”

– Hamish Maxwell
  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
  Phillip Morris Corporation

This long awaited report from the American Association of Museums (AAM) has grabbed the attention of museum and historic site professionals around the country. Intended to serve as the definitive guide, or at least catalyst, for museum development over the next several years, the book merits critical attention.

As Raymond Pisney, Executive Director of the Missouri Historical Society, has pointed out, Museums for a New Century regrettably falls short of its target. It deals effectively with the recent past and the present, but trails off dramatically when addressing the future of America’s museums. As Pisney indicates, “reading this report is a little like reading a good paper summarizing the best of the strategies . . . in Museum News and [The American Association of State and Local History’s] History News.” Unfortunately, I must agree with Pisney. Museums for a New Century does not chart a course or establish a vision — a pillar of fire — to pilot museums into the next century. It is bereft of the fundamental element that would have ensured its success: a basic question about what 21st century museums should be and how they should achieve their objectives.

If Pisney and other critics are correct, obsolete assumptions about museums and their role in our culture dominate this report. For instance, the preface states that “Museums can supplement universities as centers of research and teaching.” Although this may sound appropriate enough, many years ago professional museum publications argued that museums should stop serving as hand maids to colleges and universities. Teaming with universities certainly has its place, but as keepers of primary material culture resources and knowledge, museums should no longer behave like 19th century cabinets of the bizarre and curious to be opened only by scholars” from the academy.

The meat and potatoes of Museums for a New Century is its “New Litany” of recommendations. Many of these suggestions are well taken and do land on target, but some miss the mark. A call for federal support of collections care and national collections inventories is, for example, out of step with current federal policy. Moreover, most museums are not prepared to link up with a national inventory since they do not yet have a handle on their own collections. Our national policy lags far behind the Canadians who systematically support their museums.

An evaluation of the sixteen recommendations in Museums for a New Century thus shows that a number of them are rooted in long standing concerns and others reflect activities already put into practice by high quality museums. Although it would be impossible to accurately forecast where all American museums are going, a review of the recent trends discussed in this report could lead to a vision of where the better run museums may go as a collective body. Museums in the 21st century will, in all likelihood, play a much expanded role in society. Good museums will also be playing a bigger part in community education at all grade levels and for all facets of society. One can envision museums taking their rich resources into the community via cable television and radio, shopping malls, and other places where large numbers of people congregate.

To accomplish all these goals, however, we must find new and differently trained professionals and museum managers who are not afraid of innovation and change. Twenty-first century museums will probably be more team oriented and less pigeon-holed. This change will come by necessity as the information revolution imposes itself more and more upon the way museums do business. Museum data bases will of necessity become highly systematized and shareable via computers and sophisticated communication devices. A rigorous and innovative market orientation will allow the best 21st century museums to finance their efforts.

When all is said and done, however, this reviewer commends the AAM for undertaking this effort to prepare the profession for what lies ahead. The hard work, though, remains for the toilers in the vineyards; the working professionals who must now implement the “New Litany!”