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Developing definitions with The Colby Museum of Art 

An article I read recently made me think about the impact of art museums and how effectively art actually reaches audiences. The one standard location that has been integral to managing what kind of art is publicly displayed is almost too broad to define, but there was a conference this past summer to write a description that encompasses a sort of manifesto for museums. Naturally, there were a lot of comments from scholars in response. 

The Icom (International Council of Museums) announced a new official definition of “museum” on Aug. 24: A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.

This definition includes a lot of action, describing what a museum does, from collecting to communicating, but leaves out what a museum is, besides an “institution in the service of society.” While the museum description includes room for innovation, it was not as progressive as some hoped, according to the Art Newspaper’s update on Icom’s museum definition, sourced from The Art Newspaper, “What is a museum? Icom finally decides on a new definition.” Critiques of the definition center around repatriation and restitution. Is the definition inclusive enough? Does it use the right words? These are questions that  the leaders in curation and the arts have been asking more than ever in the last few years.  

Also, working in a museum over the summer, I learned that topics of equality and accessibility are in fact circulating among curators and groups of visitors with the goal of making the resources in museums more accessible to more people. Small museums with local visitors have different perspectives and priorities related to what they can afford compared to larger institutions with preconceived standards and expectations.

After COVID-19 shut down museums for several months, hours and closed days have changed at many museums, and other changes are gradually evolving in the museum world, especially in campus museums. According to the students who work in the Colby Museum, the galleries offer a space of community. 

Ainsley Bonang `25, works in the museum at the front desk. She said, “It’s my favorite place on campus. I love working with the people there because they’re so amazing. And I especially love working these days because the lobby is so joyful.”

This Sarah Cain installation is a vibrant welcome to the museum that not everyone enjoys equally. My parents are not so enthusiastic about the intensely colorful contemporary splashes of art in the lobby, but they do love the museum and walked through when they visited last weekend to learn something, chat about art, and see what’s on display in the galleries. 

Some students also use the space to study, relax, and wander. Bonang shared, “I also think it’s an amazing space to learn and grow, and it’s really welcoming for everyone, as the side of the building says.”

This saying is relevant to art historical storylines, and is visible on the spiraling walls of the Guggenheim in New York, like a definition of what a museum seeks to be. Printed on the exterior of the Colby Museum are the same words, “The museum is a school: the artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections.” 

I visited a few museums last weekend, having had the opportunity to go to New York City as an art history major on the Mirken trip. One presentation taught me how hard museum education departments and development teams work to collect information on reasons people like the museum. 

In addition to drawing in visitors from all over Maine when it is open to the public, some students really apprecciate its location. 

Another student employee of the museum, Libby Johnson `23, said, “The Colby Museum has really shaped my college experience by providing a safe, welcoming space for me to go and take a break and relax from the stressful world of school.” 

In order to keep museums peaceful and educational spaces, classmates and colleagues of mine have shared my idea that the potential to expand the canon of artwork shown in public museums reflects recent cultural reprioritization. This means including narratives of formerly and currently excluded demographics and, as a result, bringing in more arts to bring in more audiences.  

An op-ed from ArtNet that reads like a call to action for campus museums, titled “Museums Need to Be Braver. Here’s How College and University Art Galleries Can Offer the Sector at Large a Roadmap for Reinvention,” includes references to several campus museums around the country, and cites their potential for cultural influence as a catalyst for changing the content within and conversations around museums everywhere.  “They are positioned to do the bravest, most radical work in the field. And other museums should take note of the model they offer: centered on people, governed with the public they serve, widely accessible to all, and transparent about how they got here.”

Museums are actually a recent cultural innovation, existing in various forms for only several hundred years (a small portion of history) from the academic survey museum which aims to encompass a little bit of everything to private collections based on taste alone. 

According to the Icom definition, working toward thinking outside of the box that traditional museum walls can construct. The intention behind the Icom definition is reimagining who benefits from these institutions and how, with the phrase, “aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” 

This goal is massive and leads museums to rebuild toward a category as diverse as its patrons. Every museum is different, everyone who looks at an exhibition or display has an individual reaction, whether it’s about objects or people.  

Since these decisions and updates over the summer, the Colby Museum attached to Bixler feels like the central space for arts on campus. Will that change as the College builds and rebuilds art centers to add opportunity and inclusivity to an expanding arts program? The campus must make way for “varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing” beyond the museum. 


~ Molly George `23


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