Saturday, September 26, 2009

Could Frank Oppenheimer Get Hired To Run A Museum Today?

One tiny, but striking, section of K.C. Cole's biography of Frank Oppenheimer (the founder of The Exploratorium) entitled something incredibly wonderful happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up  is the section that quotes F. Van Kasper, the former chairman of The Exploratorium's board: 

Frank couldn't get hired to run the Exploratorium today, Van told me.  "Frank couldn't get hired to run any museum today."  And because the job of director was now seen mainly as a matter of fundraising, "he wouldn't want to be hired either."

If that doesn't sum up the current state of science centers (and perhaps all modern museums, at least in the U.S. with its execrable governmental funding structure toward cultural institutions) I don't know what does.

Part of the reason the quote about Frank Oppenheimer struck me so much is that I've been thinking about a panel I'll be part of at the upcoming ASTC Conference called "Are Science Centers Missing The Science?"   One of the thoughts I keep circling back to as I prepare my talk is the willingness of many museum directors to bring any "dog and pony show" to their institution, no matter how tangentially related to their mission, in the hopes of raising funds.

The museum field needs more passionate (and even eccentric) leaders like Frank Oppenheimer.  But the museum field also needs more funding, widely distributed to all types and sizes of museums, to allow more diverse leadership styles (and by extension, more diverse museum offerings) the space to flourish.

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