What are Museums For?

Jacqueline Francis, Guest Bully Pulpit Editor Robert A. Corrigan Visiting Professor in Social Justice, 2016–2017, College of Ethnic Studies and César Chávez Institute, San Francisco State University   Growing up, I knew what museums were for: they were places where you learned about things and learned how to do some things—prescribed ways of looking, listening, …



Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Curator, El Museo del Barrio, New York City

What are museums for? Museums are for teaching. The front of the building that houses El Museo del Barrio features an artwork by the conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer that simply states: “A museum is a school: the artist learns to communicate, the public learns to make connections.” Though the artist has recreated this ongoing work …



Tuliza Fleming, Museum Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution

When I first began to think about the question, “What are museums for?” my initial response was to reflect upon the textbook/historical definition of museums and their missions—to collect, preserve, and research objects; to mount exhibitions; and, to educate the public about history and culture in its various forms. Upon further consideration, I realized that …



Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art, The Columbus Museum, Georgia

Museums, first and foremost, not only contain representations, they are representations. Images and objects, which form the core and raison d’être for most museums, operate in terms of meaning on two levels: centripetal, or significance specific to the object, and centrifugal, or meanings layered on top by context or culture. Because of the power inherent …



Neal Benezra, Director, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

What are museums for? In the last several decades, I believe the purpose and mission of art museums has changed dramatically, and for the better. Throughout their long history, museums have more often than not functioned as places where important works of art would be conserved for the future. This was not an ostensibly public …



Blake Shell, Executive Director, Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Portland, Oregon

Today, museums and art institutions function as a place of worship. We visit them to reflect on our lives and make sense of the world around us. However, intellectual and creative pursuits, rather than religious ones, are held as the highest goals within a museum. While reflections on morality are certainly present in art, the …