Individuals, families, children, connoisseurs and the curious all visit museums for reasons stemming from universal motivations. “Millions of people, young and old, alone and in groups, have some kind of museum experience every year,” (Falk, 1992, p. 2). Whether exploring, focusing or scrutinizing a collection, the participation of this experience contributes to the museum’s collective universality, which only contingently exists due to visitors’ presence. For inspiration, education, further interpretation and illumination, visitors take time to visit museums as cultural institutions and, while aware or not, contribute to the legacy that museums are and should be displays and educations for peoples.
Encompassing purposes such as the animation of abstract ideas or the exploration of multiple interpretations, one paramount role that museums offer to their visitors is, among others (e.g. entertainment, reverence and remembrance,) education in a unique space, verbalized through a unique voice with an exceptional language. The educational possibilities existent within most museums vary exponentially and always will; audience research, cognitive theory and cultural impetus should always guide approaches to this role. The works inside museums come, “alive generation after generation,” through our personal as well as guided interpretive experiences in these galleries, (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011, p. 66).
Where museums face complex challenges, a shift is beginning, if not already midway momentum, towards understanding museums and their visitors holistically; this approach may bridge expectations of what museums may offer their visitors as well as what their visitors may offer the institution. To speak of the evolutions of museums, in the broadest sense, coerces discursive and critical approaches in the study of and the opportunity to impact, create and initiate change, whether social, political, cultural, etc.
While education has become a primary priority of museums, next to ubiquitous acquisition and funding, the specific role of collective displays and interactive programming should come into focus by inquiring not just what the collections are presenting but why and how the visitor may play a deeper role in this process. With curatorial display influenced by breadth and theme, a visitor may analyze, interpret and leave the museum’s doors with inspiration to say something, do something and/or create positive change.
Museums should feel responsible for staying contemporary and relevant, whatever their institutional interpretation of this may be. In our age of exponential change and growth, from a digital sense to a demographic sense, museums have a unique vernacular of articulating history, whether ancient or just a decade past, in which we, as visitors, learners, users and participants in the collective human experience may ask, ‘where have we been, where are we now and where shall we go from here?’ Museums should continue to uphold “… the promise that critical inquiry leads to truths about the world for the benefit of human progress…” (Cuno, 2011, p. 112-113).
Whether it is a specific exhibition of objects that speak to a global issue or an endowment exhibiting a loose yet unifying theme connected to a local issue, museums must maintain a connection to the everyday, their every-visitor in order to progress.