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Special Article

 

Museums are for People

Ms Rosa YAU (Curator, Hong Kong Museum of History)
2001

 

Museums take an educational role to offer a unique encounter with objects and ideas for people of different ages, interests, capabilities and backgrounds. Such a role is expanding as new methods of collaboration and communication with audiences are tried. In the past, museums were collection-oriented. It has been the responsibility of museums to collect and preserve artefacts relating to human experience and relevancy, and make use of them for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge through research, educational work, permanent displays, temporary exhibitions and other educational activities. But now museums are getting more people-driven. Museum public programmes are launched for different target audiences which can potentially include people of all ages, families of all types, as well as social, educational, ethnic and religious groups. As early as the 1980s, some scholars and experts in the West introduced such a new museology concept, highlighting the shift from taking a static approach in presenting museum programmes to playing a more active role. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, a well-known expert on museum education, further points out that "museums are changing from being static storehouses for artifacts into active learning environments for people" (1).

 

Museums have assumed a new role of establishing themselves as a place of learning and enjoyment, which allows visitors to enjoy more thoughtful pursuits and learn in a highly cognitive sense with excitement and enhanced interest. It appears that the public are seeking a kind of "infotainment/edutainment" from museums, i.e. a combination of information/education and entertainment. Visitor not only want museums to furnish them with intellectual gains for self-improvement or enhancement, but also to offer leisure attraction by making their museum experience interesting and fun. In order to provide physical and psychological comfort to make museum visit both meaningful and entertaining, some new interpretive techniques and strategies for exhibits are being developed to expand the understanding of the potential for meaning-making within museums. The use of innovative strategies may include interactive displays, discovery areas, hands-on exhibits, dramatic performances, digital audio systems, interactive computer games and videos, as well as multi-media programmes, all of which are specially designed to meet the educational and entertainment-related needs of the public. Through proper programming, museums provide a comfortable and relaxing environment for people to enjoy the learning opportunity and experience the excitement of intellectual exploration.

 

Besides, the public are getting more concerned about communicating with museums. It is apparent that the linear mode of communication by showing exhibits in display cases alongside with labels is no longer appealing to the public because such kind of static or didactic approach can hardly offer them with a sense of involvement and participation. Instead, there is obviously a clear and consistent demand for a close and active encounter with exhibits, and more two-way/face-to-face communication or participatory devices in the museum public programmes so as to foster their interest in the learning process. In this connection, museums have the chance to exploit natural communication through talks, guided tours, meet-the-curator sessions, handling sessions, demonstrations, and discussion groups, etc. By listening to the views and comments from different categories of visitors on the museum services and programmes, museums can have a better idea of what the public need and expect from them. Driven by the people-oriented principle, museums have been striving to serve the community in a much broader sense so as to keep in line with their missions.

 

Moreover, the public begin to show their concern on the social functions of museums. Museums have to develop their role as an educational resource used by all sections of the population or specialized groups that museums are intended to serve. Within the museum premises, visitors expect an environment for them to reminisce, to have a social experience, and to feel being part of a community, i.e. a place where they find meaning and value, and delight in exploring the diversity of the human experience. Without it museums are expected to serve the community groups by conducting a variety of outreach programs and activities in places like schools, centres for the elderly or youth, community centres, and shopping malls, etc. Some museums also have collections of objects available on loan to schools and other institutions. To extend public service, museums are also seeking opportunities to collaborate with the community groups by drawing their expertise to share experience. For instance, partnerships between museums and the elderly are made possible through oral history and exhibitions of people's stories, dramas, slide shows, community sessions, reminiscence therapy, and training sessions on oral history projects.

 

As a matter of fact, school population is a major source of museum goers. Being a kind of non-formal education institution, museums enjoy the advantage of getting hold of their unique collections - major attraction and appeal to complement classroom learning, i.e. to further consolidate and enhance their understanding of what they have been learning by seeing the real objects. Moreover, museums always organize a wide-range of competitions on drawing, photography, pottery or model making, design, quiz, essay writing, radio play and study projects, etc. all of which aim at offering chances for students to test or give the best play of their potential. This obviously coincides with the life-wide learning as recently promoted in the education reform in Hong Kong, which encourages students to play an active role in learning outside school premises so as to broaden their horizons, to fully develop their multiple intelligence, and to acquire a full and balanced learning experience. In this regard, it is believed that museums in Hong Kong have great potential to develop themselves and make full use of their resources to serve the community. To achieve a better result in fulfilling their social functions, museums should keep in close contact with schools and the community by integrating the varied activities for the benefit of the young generation.

 

On the whole, museums assume an irreplaceable position among the many cultural facilities because they not only take the responsibilities of collecting, preserving, studying and displaying artefacts, but also play diversified educational roles in society. Due to the many changes in the world order - political, social, cultural, and environmental, museums are expected to become a place of knowledge and pleasure, or even more open, responsive and professional. Being more customer-driven and more aware of the visitors' needs, museums should play a more proactive and pre-emptive role in serving the community. After all, the success of museum service depends very much on the strong support from the community forces and their co-operation.

 

Footnote:
1. Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean 1994, Museums and their Visitors, Routledge, London.