What’s in a [museum] name?

by Gypsy McFelter

And would that which we call a museum, by any other name, have the same reason for existence?

As any dedicated professional in this field understands, the word ‘museumstems from the ancient temples dedicated the Muses, the nine goddesses of Greek mythology who inspire the arts of mortal men and women. The Muses can be credited for inspiring almost anything and everything, from astronomy and geometry, comedy and tragedy, to poetry and music, arts and literature. At its core, a museum is a place where we look at a collective past to inspire a shared future.

"Muses Sarcophagus"

 

 

 

This post was inspired by my trip to the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, where I was pleasantly surprised by every aspect of my visit, from my interactions with friendly security guards to the realization that I was the only white person in a room full of participants for the Saturday art activity. I thought that using “diaspora” in the museum’s name perfectly described what I found inside – but upon returning to my home in the rural foothills of California and relating my visit to others, I wondered how much struggle the MoAD founders underwent before settling on a word that can’t be found in the common vocabulary of a majority of Americans.

I started thinking about the naming of any museum (new or existing) and how much weight the name carries in the road towards it success – or its failure. San Francisco has seen several attempts over the past few decades to create a new museum that presents an overarching exhibition of the history and cultural landscape that shapes the city. However, in a town well known for its progressive, contentious politics, one of the stumbling blocks each group has encountered was indecision over what to call the institution itself. And like any conscientious parent analyzing names for their newborn, the nickname of a museum should also weigh heavily in the decision-making… MoAD scores big points for its abbreviated format, while another San Francisco museum project, the proposed CAMP, may very well have been doomed from the start simply because of its moniker.

Within this forum, I thought it would be interesting to open up a dialogue on the challenges of choosing a name for an institution, whether during the initial founding process or from museums that underwent a full rebranding. I know that most of us do our best to ensure that our respective temples of inspiration can survive for generations to come, and as a person whose name is filled with cultural connotations of its own, I’d love to hear some success stories on the ways in which a name shapes an institution.

Gypsy McFelter currently works in Visitor Services at Yosemite National Park, and was previously with The Mint Project, a planning effort to build a museum for San Francisco’s diverse history.

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Comments

This post made me immediately think of The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Talk about a unique name. What's awesome about this museum is that it seems to have taken on so many unique social technology and community engagement initiatives, that the name fits. It's cool. It's different. And the name makes you think, even if you don't know much about it, that it probably IS a cool and different museum. I think it's hard to live up to a unique and trendy-sounding name, but in this era when museums are stepping up to the plate and shedding out-dated stereotypes of being static and dusty places, having a creative name may give museums a leg-up in being associated with something new (and not just old). Thanks for the interesting post and the thought-fuel!

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