Museum of Ideas

An Anne Frank exhibit at the the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The museum promotes acceptance and peace across diverse cultures. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times.

David Gelles, Museums Showcase Attitudes and Beliefs as Well as Objects, The New York Times, 16 March 2015

Most museums are defined by the objects they display. A fine-arts museum exhibits paintings and sculptures. A history museum shows artifacts and documents. A science museum presents experiments.

But a growing number of museums today define themselves not by their collections but by the ideas they promote.

Take the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Founded after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the museum promotes acceptance and peace across diverse cultures. That may be a noble cause with few obvious detractors, but it nonetheless represents a significant departure. Rather than present an authoritative vision of history, the museum is trying to shape its visitors’ behavior in the world beyond the gallery walls.

An offshoot of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, the Museum of Tolerance has a large permanent exhibition examining the Holocaust. Yet it also features the Tolerancenter, with interactive displays encouraging visitors to set aside prejudices and become more liberal and accepting.

The Museum of Tolerance acknowledges that it is “not an ordinary museum of artifacts and documents.” Instead, the museum says it aims to “not only remind us of the past, but remind us to act.”

Then there is the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. A 70,000-square-foot space that “brings the pages of the Bible to life,” the Creation Museum presents a counterargument to the theory of evolution with a series of exhibits that make the case for the theory of intelligent design.

But are these institutions, promoting causes and trying to change minds, really museums? Even among museum professionals, there is no clear answer.

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