In 1999, Stephen Weil wrote a seminal article titled “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” reflecting the widespread shift in perspectives on museum practice in the last decades of the 20th century. This period saw a growing emphasis on education and a visitor-centered approach, underlining the importance of museums serving people rather than objects, stressing the transformation of museums into vibrant centers for people rather than mere custodians of objects. This idea may seem self-evident, but it still needs to be repeated: public museums exist to serve the public. This shift brought about profound changes in Western museums and holds great importance for African museums as they seek to adopt a more visitor-centered approach, shifting the focus from objects to stories and, through them, to people.
This evolving museum landscape marks a departure from the old mindset in which museums were perceived as what sometimes has been described as a “salvage and warehouse businesses” or as “cemeteries for old objects”. For decades, museums have been transitioning from being mere curators of collections to becoming dynamic educational institutions. Their primary responsibility is no longer centered solely on preserving objects. This change is driven by a growing recognition of the importance of engaging audiences and making art and culture more accessible and relevant to the public. It involves abandoning the old paradigm where museums were seen as repositories for old, rare, and valuable objects, with visitors playing a passive role. Undoubtedly, the traditional museum model, characterized by quiet galleries and demands for silence and reverence for artifacts, is evolving into a more visitor-centered approach.
Museology, the science, and practice of managing museums, has undergone a fundamental change in emphasis, moving from collections to audiences and from objects to stories. This storytelling approach helps visitors connect with the art on a personal level, fostering deeper appreciation and understanding. Museums are now weaving narratives and stories around their collections, fostering a deeper appreciation, and understanding of art. At the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) of the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, where I work, we are actively participating in promoting these goals. We no longer see ourselves solely as repositories for art, history, and culture but as active contributors to fostering curiosity, promoting critical thinking and interrogation, and encouraging active engagement.
This shift from objects to audiences has led us at YSMA, and at many other museums on the continent, to adopt educational approaches that encourage visitor engagement. The visitor-centered paradigm extends beyond the physical museum walls, with exhibits and programs designed to cater to diverse audiences, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity. Museums are becoming more active members of their communities, collaborating with local organizations, hosting events, and inviting community input to meet the needs and interests of the people they serve. Outreach programs, partnerships with schools, and community-focused exhibitions are some ways we do this. Museums exist to serve the public by providing educational experiences that are accessible, relevant, enriching, and of course, also enjoyable. We are making concerted efforts to be more accessible to a wider range of visitors, regardless of age, background, or social and educational status. This involves creating programs that resonate with different people and communities.
The relevance of museums increasingly depends on their ability to engage with their audiences. Visitors are no longer seen as passive observers but as active participants who interact with exhibits, share their perspectives, and create meaningful connections with the content. Museums have transitioned from being staid institutions to vibrant hubs of interaction and dialogue, with the visitor’s experience taking center stage.
This transformation in museum practice represents a fundamental shift, emphasizing the evolving role of museums as educational, community-centered institutions. In the 21st century, African museums must serve the public by offering enriching, challenging, and dynamic experiences. The African museum community is progressively embracing a visitor-centered paradigm that celebrates the power of storytelling and audience engagement to remain relevant and meaningful cultural institutions. Visitors are no longer passive observers but active participants in a journey of discovery, learning, and personal growth, and museums are here to serve them. African museums can harness the power of their collections to tell compelling stories that resonate with their communities, transcending geographical, cultural, and historical boundaries.
Informal learning methodologies adopted in museum exhibitions and programs place the learner at the center of the experience. Museums are no longer staid institutions but vibrant hubs of interaction and dialogue, where the visitor’s experience is paramount. The transformation of museums from being about something to being for somebody represents a profound shift in museum practice and one that points at the evolving role of museums as educational, community-centered institutions.
This shift of emphasis from objects to audiences has, in recent times in the West, brought a risk of populism and commercialization of the museum experience. In some unfortunate cases, museums have been driven exclusively by market logic, leading to blockbuster exhibitions, aggressive advertising and merchandising, and a gradual shift towards the entertainment and tourism industries.
While we cannot predict the future of African museums, if current trends continue, we may see museums adopting more experiential approaches to the way they display and organize their collections to have a greater impact on their audiences. For museums to remain relevant and meaningful cultural institutions, they have to offer multifaceted services that enrich society and help individuals develop.
This shift is not just a trend but a fundamental transformation in the museum world—one that ensures visitors are no longer passive observers but active participants in a journey of discovery, learning, and personal growth, with museums ready to serve them. I am increasingly convinced that 21st century museums in Africa must serve the public by providing enriching, challenging, and dynamic experiences. The African museum world must rethink, adapt, and embrace a visitor-centered paradigm that celebrates the power of storytelling, critical thinking, and audience engagement. This is particularly important for the few university museums on the continent, and this is what YSMA is striving to do for the benefit not only of the Pan-Atlantic University but for the whole community.
• Dr Castellote is the Director, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art. Pan-Atlantic University