Museums should stick to what they do best - to preserve, display, study and where possible collect the treasures of civilisation and of nature. They are not fit to do anything else. It is this single rationale for the museum that makes each one unique, which gives each its own distinctive character. It is the hard work of scholars and curators in their own areas of expertise that attracts visitors. Everybody knows that the harder you try to win friends and ingratiate yourself with people, the more repel you them. It would seem however that those running our new museums need to learn afresh this simple human lesson.
Source: Josie Appleton, "Museums for 'The People'?" in 'Museums and their Communities', edited by Sheila Watson (2007).
If that polemic has depressed you too much, you can read this inspiring article instead, 'The wide open future of the art museum: Q&A with William Noel':
We just think that Creative Commons data is real data. It’s data that people can really use. It’s all about access, and access is about several things: licensing and publishing the raw data. Any data that you capture should be available to be the public. ... The other important thing is to put the data in places where people can find it... The Walters is a museum that’s free to the public, and to be public these days is to be on the Internet. Therefore to be a public museum your digital data should be free. And the great thing about digital data, particularly of historic collections, is that they’re the greatest advert that these collections have. ... The digital data is not a threat to the real data, it’s just an advertisement that only increases the aura of the original...
...people go to the Louvre because they’ve seen the Mona Lisa; the reason people might not be going to an institution is because they don’t know what’s in your institution. Digitization is a way to address that issue, in a way that with medieval manuscripts, it simply wasn’t possible before. People go to museums because they go and see what they already know, so you’ve got to make your collections known. Frankly, you can write about it, but the best thing you can do is to put out free images of it. This is not something you do out of generosity, this is something you do because it makes branding sense, and it even makes business sense. So that’s what’s in it for the institution.
The other main reason to do it is to increase the knowledge of and research on your collection by the people, which has to be part of your mission at least, even in the most conservative of institutions.
Btw, if you're in New York and fancy meeting up for a coffee before June 17, drop me a line in the comments or @mia_out. (Or ditto for Indianapolis June 17-30).