You cannot set out with a goal to visit a new museum every single week without giving consideration to what, exactly, counts as a museum.
This question is one I have explored in other posts, and as I plan for a possible third round of Weekly Museum Visits (my current full-time job ends September 29), it continues to vex, prod, demand clear-cut definitions and categories.
The American Association of Museums states that museums “include both governmental and private museums of anthropology, art history and natural history, aquariums, arboreta, art centers, botanical gardens, children’s museums, historic sites, nature centers, planetariums, science and technology centers, and zoos.” For my part, I always counted places like arboreta and botanical gardens. As a museum educator, I was interested in any site with a collection (living or inanimate) and potential for informal learning.
Still, as I make a list of potential places to visit and blog about, I run into the following questions:
- Do all national parks count as museums? Even the occasional blocks of green space in DC?
- If national parks count, what about state and local parks?
- If art museums definitely count, what about art centers? Art galleries?
- Can a sensory garden or planetarium be a museum unto itself, or does it need to be part of a larger institution with more museum-like characteristics?
- Which historic houses of worship count as museums? Only the ones with exhibits (like Washington National Cathedral)? Or any that have old art or architecture? Any that give tours and have a role as a visitor attraction?
- Can any government building that gives tours and/or has some old valuable art and/or has an exhibit about itself in the lobby count as a museum?
- What about cases in which one museum has multiple buildings (National Gallery of Art) or one building has multiple museums (National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum)?
- Can a monument or memorial plus its visitor center count as a museum? Do all the Mall monuments count as individual museums, one collective museum, or no museum at all?
- Can a historic house that is not set up as a museum still count, if part of it serves as a visitor information center or gift shop?
- DC has a lot of Civil War forts; can these be counted as museums?
- What about a community center or a library with a room for displaying art?
- How about private collections that can be seen by appointment only? What about a random person who bills their den full of squirrel knickknacks as a museum open to the public?
- Do farms and petting zoos count? Military bases? Campgrounds? Cemeteries? Performing arts venues? Embassies? Visionary art environments? Labyrinths? Corn mazes? Dog parks? Carillons? (This list could go on for a while.)
- Does a visit to some places (say, a church or a forest) only count if you take a tour or read a brochure as you go? Do you have to know you are looking at a collection in order for it to count as such?
Although I am aware that such questions are largely a manifestation of the unique ways in which my mind works, I am also curious to hear how others in the museum field would answer these questions. What, exactly, does the museum world count as a museum?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
August’s blog theme is Museum Categories.