Thursday, September 17, 2009

MUSEUM magazine / November-December 2009

Is there a museum afterlife? Following a dignified demise what awaits the typical American museum on the other side? Reboot, retool or reprogramming? Will museums restore old routines and ‘software’ or embrace new and progressive operating systems?

At the close of ‘Death with Dignity’(MUSEUM magazine, July/August 2009) the alternatives are clearly outlined in ‘Tough Calls for Tough Times’. Whether museums are looking to simply get healthy or more remarkably, return from the dead, tomorrow’s bottom-line mission statements might read:“Pay attention, be efficient and remain relevant.”

For perhaps the first time in museum history, almost every size venue- small, medium, large and extra large- now confront the same issue. In order to compete, maybe even survive, museums must increase revenue streams by attracting and holding the attention of millions of potential new customers. The upside is that there are super-informed consumers out there just waiting to make a decision, a huge available audience free to select from a nearly unlimited menu of leisure time choices. But in order grab and hold a share of the marketplace, museums must be prepared to make changes.

Banking on reputation, relying on experience and managing the marquee by growls of gut instinct won’t cut it anymore. Prior to the recent economic meltdown there were indications that change was imminent however the collapse has compressed the timeline for change and brought things into sharper focus. There exists real pressure to make honest evaluations and size things up. The traditional field of play has been leveled and democratized, impacting how museums will operate and communicate in the immediate future. There needs to be attention paid to answering questions like how do museums fit on the "new worldwide" stage and how will they be identified moving forward, hopefully as competitive players within an ever evolving education-entertainment marketplace.

But the question remains as to whether the next generation of museums is truly prepared to leap forward and inspire audiences in memorable ways. Can modern institutions continue, as they once did, to impress visitors by leading the way and employing innovative means for expressing big and difficult ideas? This is something that museum spaces are uniquely organized and outfitted to do. Risk taking ought to be the hallmark trait of the museum reputation. After all it was the American museum that helped frame and bring contemporary non-objective art into view, planted evolutionary theory and climate change issues inside everyday conversations and pushed the social histories of civil rights, tenement housing and many other relevant topics out in the open.

Can museums build upon these past achievements or are they liable to eventually succumb to the pressures and burdens inherent in administering and maintaining their own virtuosity? Is there a price to pay for maintaining and perpetuating outdated traditions that often cause museums to forego risk? Is there danger in being too careful and cautious regarding the need to make big changes?

Perhaps in the near future museums should seek to take the next logical step and work to inspire more than just inform. To allow people to intuit instead of only interpret and to live up to the promise of informal learning by pushing people to not only experience things but to engage intimately as well as intellectually. Maybe in this fashion museums can coax visitor’s to record memories instead of simply pocketing meaning and with that done museums will indeed enjoy a useful life or afterlife.

1 comment:

  1. It is a curious challenge. Time and time again I find myself both defending experiences that at first glance do not seem educational (in the traditional sense) and also trying to manipulate the experiences so they appear more educational for those who demand it.

    Our audiences want their experiences to have value in a way that they do not expect from theater, parks, shopping malls, or other leisure activities. The afterlife of museums seems to depend on making the most of that expectation, living up to it, and adapting to new generations who expect the same thing but in different ways.