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Beyond Management: Making Museums Matter

by Stephen Weil, senior scholar emeritus, Center for Museum Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This paper is also available in PDF format

Keynote Address at the 1st International Conference on Museum Management and Leadership - Achieving Excellence: Museum Leadership in the 21st Century INTERCOM/CMA conference held in Ottawa, Canada, September 6-9, 2000


If somebody -- one of those hypothetical Martian visitors, for example, that almost invariably turn up in keynote addresses like this -- were to ask which one of us was the worthiest person in this room, most of us would unhesitatingly dismiss the question as nonsensical. Alternately, we might respond that we were each worthy, and moreover worthy in the same degree -- not on some comparative scale. From at least the Renaissance onward, the notion that all human beings are created essentially equal, that every human being has an intrinsic worth, an inherent and basic dignity, has increasingly established itself as one of the foundations of our humanist tradition -- as the very cornerstone, in fact, of our civil rights and our fundamental political freedoms.

But what, though, if our hypothetical Martian visitor were to ask a different question? What if she were to ask instead about the worthiness of the museums from which those in this room have come? What if she wanted to know which of those was the worthiest? Could we answer that question as well in such an unhesitating and unanimous way? My guess is: not. My guess is we would have to tell her something like this:

First: That individuals and institutions, in terms of intrinsic worth, are in no way analogous. Unlike individuals, institutions -- and that includes museums -- have no inherent worth or dignity. No matter how venerable, noble or encrusted with tradition any particular museum may be, at bottom it is still nothing more than a human fabrication, an organizational contrivance through which some group or other hopes to achieve some short or long-term objective. Whatever worthiness a museum may ultimately have derives from what it does, not from what it is...

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