Heritage Museums and the Public
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Museums are public institutions. The American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics states that “for museums, public service is paramount.” But there is continuing and useful debate about how public service – indeed how the public – should be defined; what the public might require, demand, or need; and what the museum might offer. How might museums balance the needs of general and specific publics? How should museums balance their responsibility to the immediate needs of the public today and those of future publics?
Museums have long been public institutions, but the nature of their interaction with the public has changed. Victorian museums often aimed at “edifying” the masses. In the early twentieth century, many museums saw their role as providing training for citizenship. Exposure to the best that civilization had to offer, the thought went, would improve museum visitors, making them better people and better citizens. Toward the end of the twentieth century, many museums...
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