The Everything Museum

As a newcomer to Peoria, Illinois, last week’s Illinois Association of Museums conference was a great way to learn about the local museum landscape.  In particular, I find the “everything” museum of great interest.  In large metropolitan areas such as New York or Chicago, museums generally collect and display artifacts relating to a single discipline.  They are “or” museums: art OR science OR history.

The Everything Museum has an opportunity rarely afforded the single-discipline museum.  It can demonstrate the ways in which disciplines are connected, and even the ways in which disciplinary boundaries are artificial constructs.  Some Illinois museums are taking on this challenge: a colleague from the Illinois State Museum in Springfield notes that this museum is in fact working on integrating its art and design collections to tell a coherent story about Illinois.

There are golden opportunities for these museums to tell stories that cross all boundaries.  How nature or cities inspire artists, and how artists in turn impact cities.  How the science of agriculture relates to the history of scientists who work with these plants.  How the duck decoy (prominent in so many Illinois museums) is both an anthropological artifact and a work of art, while building on information provided by biologists and zoologists about bird behavior.

Left: Duck decoy, probably Middle Desert Archaic Tradition, 400 BC-AD 100. Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. Right: Pintail Drake decoy, Illinois State Museum.

Left: Duck decoy, probably Middle Desert Archaic Tradition, 400 BC-AD 100. Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. Right: Pintail Drake decoy, Illinois State Museum.

In a post from last November, Elizabeth Merritt from the Center for the Future of Museums wrote:

Art is a great starting point for forays into other areas, and personally, I like working with art. But at times, if you want your … museum to really be interdisciplinary you will have to show objects that are simply not art, and do shows that do not behave like the shows at art museums. That will mean behaving more like museums of material culture, science, anthropology and archeology, and history.

The Everything Museum doesn’t have to be “more like” any other type of museum to show the many facets of human endeavor.  It need only bring its resources together in a cohesive exhibition or program.

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