Stranger Than Fiction

Photo by See-Ming Lee via Flickr.

Photo by See-Ming Lee via Flickr.

Recently, in my museum studies class, we have been tackling the issue of defining museums and the shift from collection-focused to audience-focused outlooks. So, when I came across the following exchange in P.D. James’ The Murder Room, it really caught my attention…

(A museum visitor asks of the curator)”What did you say the museum was for?”

Calder-Hale hesitated and turned. “I told him what he already knew. The Dupayne, like any reputable museum, provides for the safe custody, preservation, recording and display of items of interest from the past for the benefit of scholars and others interested enough to visit. Dupayne seemed to think it should have some kind of social or missionary function. Extraordinary!”

The debate continues further along in the chapter. The character Ackroyd is describing the history of the small Dupayne museum:

“…For the old man the museum was a private indulgence, as of course museums tend to be for some of their curators. He didn’t exactly resent visitors – some were actually welcomed – but he thought one genuine enquirer was worth fifty casual visitors and acted accordingly. If you didn’t know what the Dupayne was and the opening hours, then you didn’t need to know…”

His friend Dalgliesh responds with the following:

“But a casual uninformed visitor could enjoy the experience, get a taste for it, discover the fascination of what in the deplorable contemporary jargon we are encouraged to call ‘the museum experience.’ To that extent a museum is educational…”

The Murder Room was published in 2003, but this debate is still raging today. Is one of these characters correct, are they all correct? I’m not sure there is one right answer.

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