This week, Ben Garcia, author of the chapter ‘Creating Public Value through Museum Education’ In Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, considers whether public value can be ‘fun’.
When I first read Mary Ellen Munley’s question in this blog about public value goals central to the work of the museum and Marsha Semmel’s proposition that museums of value work to become more essential to their communities, I did not think first of beer tastings. But I recently had the opportunity to visit a museum programme in a city that prides itself on its beer culture, and where a large sector of the community engages around music and beer and burgers. So, is this museum –capitalising on existing community interests and providing an enjoyable experience for visitors in the process- doing something of public value?
Part of the challenge when thinking about public value, is that most of the literature comes from an advocacy or research perspective—and these are not realms known for fun. The messages are often reflective and usually directed to a worthy social goal. I have been thinking lately about fun. And about how that term applies to public value.
The beer-tasting event at The Museum of Man in San Diego which I attended last week is indicative of that museum’s wider strategy towards populist exhibitions that incorporate unexpected connections to current social issues. The tasting was one of several held in conjunction with a beer exhibition that features vessels and tools used for the production and consumption of beer throughout history and around the world. The objects were accompanied by informative and humorous labels about cross-cultural beer-making traditions and the exhibit included a wonderful interactive component related to beer terminology around the world.
Walking about the great hall, surrounded by a buzz of museum patrons sampling local beers and eating a variety of foods from area restaurants, I was thinking about the value of programs like these. Museums are often conflicted when the events that garner the greatest public response are those that lie farthest away from traditional notions of museums’ social value.
And then I noticed that the museum had located an exhibition about cooperative businesses run by women in developing countries directly across from the beer exhibition. That space featured objects made by artisans and artists in cooperatives in South Africa, South America, India and elsewhere. The interpretation was an exploration of the socioeconomic factors that underpinned the scarce resources in these communities and a description of the efforts women had made on their own behalf to raise the community out of poverty. As I watched visitors move from the beer exhibition to the beer-tasting event to the exhibition about artist cooperatives I saw the Museum of Man model in action. And I saw fun and public value aligned.
We tend to be very serious when we talk about the role of museums in society. I wonder if those of us who advocate for the public value of museums might do well to follow the example of museums like The Museum of Man and keep the “fun” in profundity.