Museums often hold diverse collections. Think of the Royal Ontario Museum whose holdings include dinosaurs, building columns, and moccasins in one collection. Accusations of privilege and elitism are regular criticism of museums as making museum more old guard than future leaning. Museums have acquisition policies and hierarchy, certainly, but even anarchists need to organize for a protest.
Museums have faith in their audience. Museums let people in. They make precautions to secure their collections of the guards and buzzer persuasions. But, even with these items in place, for the most part, museums are putting themselves out there with their ideas written on the wall. They have the faith in their audience to come and go, over and over, and leave the collections unscathed. What could be more democratic? There is no entrance test. Many are as free as your local library. A billionaire and a homeless person are equally welcome.
Museums encourage difficult conversations. Walk into most science center in the country and you will explore climate change, as scientists present it, not as we wish it to be. Explore many contemporary art museum exhibitions and you will be faced with inequality issues. Museum don’t shirk reality—they embrace it.
Museums are into education. While politicians debate the best way to do education writ large, museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have been encouraging learning for more than a century. Certainly, museums have struggled with the bad press the word education gets, changing their departments to learning or interpretation. But at their essence, most museums are into education. And, given there are more museums than Starbucks, that museums that there is a whole lot of informal education going down in this country.
Millions of dollars are required to acquire and maintain collections. However, once art becomes part of a museum collection, it rarely returns to the open market. The collection object no longer can be priced, valued in dollars, as that object will not be for sale. Its monetary value becomes academic, an issue for insurance men and registrars. In a world where stock prices, IPO, and quarterly gains, museums are in the business of priceless.