CRM Journal

Book Review

The Promise of Cultural Institutions

By David Carr. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003; 213 pp., notes, appendices, index; cloth $69.00; paper $24.95.


What does the future hold for museums and other cultural institutions in the digital age? During the past decade, the information revolution has radically altered conceptions of culture and individual experience. With a computer hooked to the Internet, a person can view many museums' collections, take virtual tours of exhibitions, perform text searches of facsimiles of Shakespeare's folios, follow streams of music of the centuries, or create an anthropological investigation of historic sites from around the world, all from the comfort of one's home or office.

The Internet is only part of the intense mediation of culture—accelerating, amplifying, and distancing people from tangible, authentic experiences of art and artifact. Museums, libraries, and many other cultural institutions have undergone a radical displacement of function. In any public library, the change over a single generation is evident, from an oasis of quiet study and reflection to a bright and loud cyber-center where books are secondary to the glow and hum of Internet stations.

In his new collection of essays, David Carr from the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina acknowledges the information glut with an appeal to every thinking person: "Our task is to slow down the information revolution." Our cultural institutions, he argues, may be the last, best hope for individuals to escape the giddy and fast-paced effects of media to arrive at a "working sense of identity and integrity." The book is a call to our museums and related organizations to live up to their role in the heuristic relationship of user and institution: "The purpose of the museum, at its best is, like the purpose of a great educator, to cause some kind of troubling incompleteness for the user, and so to inspire human pursuit and gradual change."

This moral imperative lies at the heart of Carr's brave and compelling book. It challenges museums to be true to their responsibilities to individuals (especially children) and communities, to be open and emancipatory, to educate and engage as collaborative environments. Carr's views of the differences between schools and cultural institutions as learning environments are particularly useful.

Within the context of these broad concerns, Carr uses particularly apt examples to look at pragmatic approaches to the design of physical space and placement of objects. In one of the more practical essays, "The Situation that Educates," he draws upon theories of learning and cognitive psychology to outline an approach for institutions to better understand their mission and purpose, and to design for more mindful uses. The initial part of the process is to construct three overlaying maps of their collections: physical, conceptual, and cognitive. Organizations should re-think their collections and develop a "concept inventory" of the physical space and objects in that space, which would in turn provide a clear idea of the "conceptual density" of a given organization. What do we have, why would people want to use the collection, and how should we design the flow of experience? Moving beyond the matter of exhibition design, this approach encompasses all aspects of the environment from the nature of signage to a process for developing collaboration and dialogue among users and cultural institutions. One remarkable and simple suggestion is to create a staff position within museums that parallels the function of a reference librarian, who would be on call to interact with users, answer questions, and point out other pathways to knowledge.

Carr insists that cultural institutions function as learning environments to encourage a culture of inquiry and connection with others. He also puts particular emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of users. Carr takes seriously the notion of reciprocal public trust. He believes that rule one for cultural institutions is to "rescue users" from being baffled, uncertain, or put off.

In order to become great cultural institutions, the institutions must become engaged users as well. Carr asks users to become "inspired learners," to move through the experience more actively, attempting to understand the given framework, and go beyond artifacts and walls to be independent and curious thinkers. As important as the obligation of museums to "live up" to user needs, each visitor is also asked to take the risk of being changed by the learning encounter. In the best scenario, the visitor will move from the passive experience engendered by the media to engage in a two-way street of "alternatives, tension, and trouble." Cultural institutions should "trouble us, and so assist us in becoming who and what we are meant to be."

The Promise of Cultural Institutions troubles as well. Drawing on extensive scholarship on how people actually learn, Carr asks us to reconsider the relationship between the user and institution as primarily cognitive and open-ended. Carr posits fundamental questions about an endangered relationship of user and institution and asserts that both parties are responsible for the future of museums, libraries, and other collections. Neglecting the deep questions that this book raises would be a mistake for any leader of a cultural institution.

Keith Donohue
National Archives and Records Administration