A new museum opened in Washington D.C. last year. Called Planet Word, it's billed as "the museum where language comes to life." My first thought when I heard about it was, "Ironic: a museum about words just closed in D.C." I was thinking of the Newseum, which was technically about journalism. So much of what's displayable about journalism involves printed or spoken words.
The Newseum had a permanent collection, although many of their exhibits relied on loaned objects. Planet Word doesn't appear to have a collection. The descriptions and design visuals on its website promise high-tech displays and interactives: videos of people speaking different languages, a 20-foot-tall wall of words that responds with light effects when visitors speak into a microphone.
Many purists insist that a museum without collections isn't a museum. They have plenty of chances to insist these days. Instagram-ready "museums" are the rage. Places like the Museum of Ice Cream offer stage sets for selfies, filled with disposable props rather than irreplaceable artifacts. But museums without collections aren't a new phenomenon, and they’ve been just as earnestly educational as the most serious-minded institutions
Think of the Exploratorium, founded in 1969, and all its thriving offspring—we call some of them “science centers” and some “museums.” These places often have collections in storage and on display, but it’s the touchable, manipulable demonstrations of scientific discovery that define them.
Children’s museums go back even farther—the first opened in Brooklyn in 1899—and by the end of the 20th century they were proliferating. For the most part, the experiences they offer do not center on a collection of stuff that they’re also trying to preserve.
I’m interested in the debate over what to call a place without collections, though I’m not backing one side or the other. Instead, I want to provoke another argument: you can’t call a place with no exhibitions a museum.
Many collections reside in people’s homes, and we don’t think of those as museums. A place that houses collections might function as a research lab for scientists or scholars who are building some understanding about the specimens or artifacts. With no visitors at all, however, that building would be simply a warehouse.
There’s something about public sharing that’s essential to museums. We expect that museums with collections will share them. Not by lending them to individuals—that’s what libraries do. We expect that collecting institutions will share the experience of encountering the things they preserve. More, that they will share the understanding of scientists and scholars about those things. We accept that these experiences and understandings somehow represent the world we live in. They present an interpretation of reality.
And what about places we might call “museums” that don’t preserve or even display collections—the Exploratorium and other science museums, the children’s museums? In these places, scientists and scholars also share experiences and understandings. These museums also present interpretations of reality.
And those interpretations, I’d argue, are essential to the definition of museum. It’s not solely specimens and artifacts protected in sealed cases that make a museum’s heart beat. It’s the meanings that we and our visitors give to those things, the meanings we find in all the experiences, stories, and understandings offered by museums.