Museums are where we go to explore art, history, and science; where we seek understanding of big ideas, our communities, and ourselves. There was a time when these institutions described and interpreted culture and, in many cases, defined it. Today, though, culture is defined more broadly than ever. Museums maintain a place of prestige but occupy an increasingly crowded space. Restaurants, television, festivals, and popular culture are seen as equally relevant and valid expressions of our societal identity. As our ideas about culture stretch and technology transforms how we communicate, museums must engage with increasingly diverse issues and audiences. From celebrity to social justice, no topic is taboo. From international expansion to homegrown activism, no audience is out of earshot.
THE PULL OF COMMERCE
Once utilitarian spaces to buy souvenirs and staunch fatigue, museum shops and dining spaces are now an integral part of the museum experience. The period rooms that house the Victoria and Albert Museum’s dining options are equal parts exhibition and cafe, while the Whitney’s lauded Untitled restaurant is a destination unto itself. The Rijksmuseum’s shop offers branded collaborations and extends beyond its walls to a robust e-commerce experience. Consumable museum-like experiences are also on the rise, with Instagram-focused pop-ups such as the Museum of Ice Cream. Balancing visitor expectation for elevated experiences with the desire to document and take something home may lead to both opportunity and mission drift.
Museums around the world are expanding their footprints both locally and internationally. The Guggenheim, the Louvre, and the Hermitage continue to open satellite sites in a variety of markets. This, and the pull of commerce, are not without backlash. Curators and administrators are questioning the sustainability of these efforts and the impact this ethos has on their cultural content. Verbier Art Summit, an arts and innovation symposium, launched in 2017 with the theme “Size Matters! (De)growth in the 21st Century Art Museum.” While growth may make a museum experience more accessible for a broad audience, leaders should be conscientious of how (and if) growth builds the value of a museum and proves its necessity in the communities it serves.
WHERE CULTURE LIVES
While museums once served as arbiters of culture, public perception is changing. The LaPlaca Cohen’s 2017 Culture Track report shows a more diverse perception than ever of what qualifies as culture, adding street art, music festivals, restaurants, and TV to the traditional institutions. This idea is also seen in the use of the museum as a symbol to be challenged in popular culture. Black Panther depicts a direct challenge to the authority of a museum curator bringing big screen action and contemporary ideas about social justice into the galleries. Additionally, Beyoncé and Jay-Z set their “Apesh*t” music video in the Louvre, placing black excellence and artistry in a historically white, European milieu, both challenging the status quo of what we think of as prestige culture and elevating popular content through proximity to that prestige.
The pedestals on which museums once stood are crumbling. Museums and historical centers have become highly visible sites of protest, as they represent — simultaneously — the pursuit of understanding and the perpetuation of oppressive ideologies. Among many others instances, 2018 saw the Statue of Liberty scaled by a protestor of Trump’s immigration policies and union protests at the Tate Modern’s Picasso exhibition over a labor dispute with Ernst & Young, the exhibition’s sponsor. With increased transparency and public interest, museum operations, content, and fundraising have become topics of contention. The Sacklers, a family made wealthy on the sale of OxyContin, are major museum donors. This has led to protests at the Met and elsewhere. As museums work to balance sustainable growth with public perception, increased transparency means museums need to prepare for increased scrutiny of the providence of both objects and funds.
A major buzzword in business and technology is “iteration.” It is used to describe the process of launching a pre-perfect idea, learning from users and launching again quickly based on user research. Museums are beginning to incorporate “user research” into exhibitions, through events and interactive engagement that have a direct impact on the content of the exhibitions. Responsive components and engaging events have a dual function; serving as both engagement and research tools. Simultaneously, some museums are embracing the maker movement by providing materials, tools, and space for visitors to create and often take with them objects that reflect the content and goals of exhibitions. Learning from visitors and asking them to fully engage with content enables a robust and personalized experience.
LOW-BROW IS A MYTH
The line between high art and pop culture is quickly vanishing, and the public is moving to a more expansive understanding of what culture means. Museums that thoughtfully explore and add insight to popularly relevant ideas that once seemed too low-brow, coarse, or common will thrive.
BASE GROWTH IN CONNECTION
We connect with experiences that make us feel special. Our communities and our culture are deeply felt components of what makes us unique. Growth is a good goal for museums, giving more individuals access to their content, but institutions should anchor growth in uniqueness of the communities they serve and the realities that best serve their content.
CLARITY OF VISION
The public has more access than ever to behind-the-scenes information about all organizations. With this comes new expectations about how organizations express their values through fundraising, operations, and content. Transparency can be used to amplify the mission of a museum, but it needs be built in, so an organization can anticipate and respond to public engagement.
TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU GIVE
Museums often see themselves as generous, giving of time, resources, and energy to the communities they serve. Shift the mindset from giving to reciprocity. People visit museums because they want to participate in culture and community. Build in ways to learn from your visitors, we all love to be heard.