Web Collections Pose Question: What Is a Museum? Lower airfares and high gas prices are encouraging families to leave the car behind at vacation time. That means fewer visitors for small museums outside major cities, forcing them to close their doors and display their exhibits online.
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Web Collections Pose Question: What Is a Museum?

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Web Collections Pose Question: What Is a Museum?

Web Collections Pose Question: What Is a Museum?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Some rural museums are having a hard time staying open. They're seeing fewer and fewer visitors. The roadside James Dean Museum in Indiana and Strawbridge Village in Massachusetts are just two examples of out of the way museums that have been forced to scale back their operations. Some other museums have found a different way to stay open. They're moving online. But does that mean any website that calls itself a museum actually qualifies as a museum?

Harriet Baskas went to find out.


The American Dime Museum in Baltimore is Dick Horn's tribute to the 19th Century museums and 20th Century sideshows that displayed strange and wonderful things from around the world.

Mr. DICK HORN (American Dime Museum): For instance we have a two-headed calf and things like Fuji mermaids and Peruvian Amazon mummies and there's a collection of art and jewelry made of human hair.

BASKAS: During the first six years it was open, Horn says the American Dime Museum got an average of 7,500 admission paying visitors a year. People could also visit online, although Horn doesn't really call that visiting. Yet today that is the only way to see the entire collection.

Mr. HORN: All operating expenses have gone up and what we needed was funding for our operating side of it and we just weren't able to obtain it, so you have to make a wise business decision at some time, even as much as you love it. So we decided we would have to close.

Mr. KEVIN GUILFOILE (Museum of Online Museums): Dime Museum. Oh there it is. Yeah, wow. Instant MOOM classic.

BASKAS: MOOM, the Museum of Online Museums, is a web site based in Chicago and curated by Jim Coudal and Kevin Guilfoile. They started it in 1999, the pre-blog days, says Guilfoile, to point others to museums and collections they find online while they should be working.

Mr. GUILFOILE: Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are just strange and some of them are historical.

BASKAS: Some of MOOM's links reach the web sites of the curators' favorite brick and mortar museums.

Mr. JIM COUDAL (Museum of Online Museums): I mean, I don't think there's any substitute to going to a museum and looking at a Chagall. Some things just inherently aesthetically you need to be in the presence of them. That is a different kind of transforming experience. Other things, it's not necessary.

BASKAS: Guilfoile and co-curator Jim Coudal say at the Museum of Online Museums, those other things include web sites devoted to air sickness bags, antique mouse and rat traps and a MOOM favorite, the Gallery of Skate Park ID's.

Mr. COUDAL: You join a skate park and you get an ID so you can go there all summer long and there's thousands of these scanned in here and besides from the bad hair cuts, there's a lot of really interesting things to look at.

Mr. GUILFOILE: All of these faces of kids - and he also has it meticulously divided up by skate park, by state, indexed all kinds of different ways. I just find it incredibly interesting online, but nobody would go to an actual physical museum of skate park ID's.

Mr. FRED BESHID (Curator of the Museum of Fred): I think the nature of a museum and what is considered a museum is changing now because of the internet.

BASKAS: Fred Beshid curates the online Museum of Fred, which displays about sixty images from his collection of paintings bought in thrift stores. Beshid has a degree in fine arts, a day job in the construction industry and has realized his dream of opening a museum.

Mr. BESHID: I was excited when the internet came along, because I had this opportunity to create an online museum where I could at least share these images with other people.

BASKAS: Beshid says the internet allows anyone to have a museum. But is a collection of thrift store paintings really a museum and should anyone have a museum? Wilson O'Donnell doesn't think so.

Mr. WILSON O'DONNELL (University of Washington): Well, anybody can have a web site. Anybody can develop a collection. It doesn't necessarily make them a museum.

BASKAS: O'Donnell is the director of the museology program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Calling an online museum a museum, he says, is like calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia.

Mr. O'DONNELL: I wouldn't go to Wikipedia for information. Just like if Fred has some statement that he makes about his art in terms of art history, I certainly wouldn't depend upon that in terms of having any type of authority. It doesn't mean that the Museum of Fred isn't a very interesting thing to do. It's just not a museum.

BASKAS: The Merriam Webster online dictionary provides two definitions for the word museum. The first is β€œan institution devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” The second is simply β€œa place where objects are exhibited.” Jim Coudal of the Museum of Online Museums likes that definition.

Mr. COUDAL: The choosing to display is what makes a museum. The taste of the curator, the curation makes a museum.

BASKAS: But what makes a curator? The University of Washington's Wilson O'Donnell argues that it requires special training and academic degrees. But some would say those things don't necessarily ensure a museum can tell a complete story.

Amy Lonetree is an assistant professor of Native American Studies at Portland State University in Oregon. She says curators at mainstream museums have traditionally presented a limited picture of Native American History. But that these days, tribal museums and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian are presenting a different perspective.

Dr. AMY LONETREE (Portland State University, Oregon): As native people, we have long had our histories framed and represented in museums by academics and by outsiders. The emphasis in exhibitions before Native American communities were actively involved in developing these exhibitions really reflected the mindset of the time period in which most of the collecting of Native American objects took place. At the early 20th Century, the prevailing mind set during this period was this idea that native people were a vanishing race. What these tribal museums have been very effective in doing is arguing, wait a minute, we're still here.

BASKAS: Lonetree says many tribal groups call their museums cultural centers and reject the term museum because, in her words, it implies things that are old and dull. But Jim Coudal at the Museum of Online Museums says, why quibble? There are too many brick and mortar museums and too many virtual museums for anyone to visit anyway, which is why he and Kevin Guilfoile are choosy about what gets into MOOM.

Mr. COUDAL: Kevin came upon the online guide to whistling records. I could tell you right now it's getting in. We didn't even have to go any further. It had MOOM written all over it, right? You'll find over 100 MP3's from whistlers all over the world, discographies, album covers and more. And don't miss the section on vintage training records for parakeets and canaries.

(Soundbite of vintage parakeet training record)

Unidentified Man: This record is specially designed to teach any healthy, normal parakeet to talk by using a scientific new method that is acknowledged to be far superior.

Unidentified Woman: Hello, baby. Hello, baby. Want a kiss?

Mr. COUDAL: How does that not make your day, when you're running into that, you know.

BASKAS: The Museum of Online Museums currently links to more than 12,000 online collections, galleries and museums. It's open 24 hours a day. Admission is free and you can visit in your pajamas.

For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

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