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John M. Eger Headshot

The Museum Is Open

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What does open really mean? For that matter what is a museum?

As the British philosopher Alan Watts put it, museums are "places where art goes to die." But for most people, museums are cherished institutions... places that "house
artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary."

Kind of boring, isn't it? It may be the reason museum attendance is down and declining precipitously. "A new report," according to the L.A. Times, "released by the National Endowment for the Arts said that the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982, which was when the NEA began conducting the poll."

One of the problems, says Derrick R. Cartwright, former director of both the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum, are the often "long lines" outside some museums when a compelling exhibit is on display, and the "Do Not Touch" signs everywhere inside. Museums can be very unfriendly places.

This is all changing, and fast.

Museums are rethinking who they are, their core competencies and, importantly, what they can do to partner with schools, libraries and others to ensure American kids have the thinking skill the 21st century so demands.

But more, they are increasingly open to new ideas -- ways to partner with each other and the community to be more accessible and, well, friendly to mobile America.

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Recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, The San Diego Museum of Art, and the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park, put together an innovative collection called "Behold, America!" with "works from the colonial period to the present that together tell a cohesive and dynamic story of the history of art in the United States."

Similar collaborations are sprouting up everywhere. According to Timothy Hart in the Philadelphia-based Museums and the Web Newsletter, "Collaboration is emerging as the critical enabler in taking full advantage of the opportunities now available for the delivery of museum online content... The number and quality of national data services now operating is making museum content available for researchers and the public in numbers and types unimaginable only a few years ago. The ground work is laid in most large museums to allow them to participate in providing access to the full range and wonder possible in museum-generated content."

Balboa Park, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2015, recently announced its "innovation incubator, part of a federal grant from the National Science Foundation focusing on how the arts can spark innovation in workforce development and 21st century STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. The $2.6 million initiative will further engage the public through, "innovation festivals, art/science innovation symposia and prototype demonstrations linked to the incubators. In conjunction with Balboa Park's 2015 Celebration, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center will launch an exhibition featuring compelling stories about the civic impact of innovation at the intersection of art, science and learning. The interactive exhibition will launch with the 2015 Celebration and travel to the other incubator sites in Worcester, Mass., and Chicago."

The technology revolution is in some ways part of the problem, but also the solution. Advances in technology are now compelling museums to be open and available 24/7, as they say; and in ways never before imagined.