Recently my colleagues and I were discussing museums over lunch. We all have a passionate interest in museums of all kinds, to one degree or another. We each had a memory to share about a favorite exhibit, a particular artifact, or even a favorite display technique, but something else came up that was very intriguing. Although we pronounced our undying affection for museums of every type, none of us had actually been to one as a guest in months. In fact, as it turns out, this relatively diverse group of writers, producers, creative directors, and artists, the so-called “interested” individuals who would seem to be the heartiest museum-goers, were all uniformly unenthused about the promise of a museum outing. Why?
We had the typical excuses: the museums are too hard to get to, the parking is a hassle, the price is too high, I can only go on the week-ends when the crowds are bad. All of these are legitimate, but none of them so daunting that they would really keep us away if the museum were compelling enough. And there’s the rub– they just… aren’t. The more we talked, the more we realized that generally museums aren’t worth going out of our way for. In some cases, they aren’t compelling enough to even warrant a spot on our recreational pastimes list (when discussing why we choose to go to museums when we do, one person replied, “When there’s nothing better to do”).
In light of all other entertainments, museums feel slightly out of touch. Even the word “museum,” feels archaic and dusty, like an invention from the 19th Century that has outlasted its usefulness. The word brings to mind the vaulted, marble floored institutions filled with relics, sarcophagi and other musty dead things behind glass or encased in formaldehyde. This is the iconic Hollywood location; the “Museum of Antiquities” visited by characters ranging from Indiana Jones to Curious George. Of course, that image doesn’t necessarily jive with the reality of today’s museums, but even the edgy architecture and the modern compulsion for Science Center interactivity cannot overcome our reluctance to go. We know it’s good for us, but so is oatmeal.
Art museums, meanwhile, elicited off-putting visions of stark minimalism: lean, streamlined galleries with a hint of erudition that left us feeling cold and out-of-place: these galleries are for experts and aficionados, certainly, but not for lay folk. The art itself is beautifully displayed, typically, but in a surreal vacuum of context. In so many cases, the works are presented with a succinct text panel, with barely any room to share even the most compelling stories about the piece, its creator, or of its time. This information is surprisingly hard to find; relegated to text on handouts or the monotonous banter of an audio tour.
TOO MUCH STATIC
While we have become increasingly spoiled by instantaneous access to information and entertainment literally at our fingertips, museum exhibits are frustratingly undynamic. The content is selected, processed and delivered down a one-way pipeline; an authoritarian board selects and presents the information that they deem worthy of our consumption. The typical museum communicates through lectures, not dialogue, and there are few ways within the museum itself for guests to pose questions or explore tangential ideas that the exhibits might inspire.
For better or worse, we live in an age of instant gratification and information access. The Internet provides an infinite web of information over which we wield complete control. Type in any subject and in a keystroke you have hundreds of relevant links that let you dive as deep into content as you want; even Wiki your own. As you do, you’ll inevitably stumble across another topic that strikes your fancy, and off you go on a whirlwind, stream-of-consciousness infosearch that could continue infinitely, if you so desire.
You don’t even need a computer anymore! Hold an iPhone in the air and with a touch on the screen and the right app, you can find out the name of the song that is playing in the elevator, and what artist or artists recorded it. Take a picture of any product anywhere with the same iPhone and another app will “look” at the picture, identify the product and then scan the Internet for more details, including make, model, and msrp. With the tap of another button, you can download the song or order the product online (after price-comparing on multiple sites for the best value, of course). And with the advent of services like iTunes, TiVo, and Netflix (along with home theater systems that rival the local cineplex’s) even television and the movies are under our beck and call.
IN THE DRIVERS SEAT
We’ve grown fond of this control. Rather than follow a designated path the curator has chosen for us, we prefer to choose our own and use the museum exhibits as a jumping off point for further investigation across many disciplines. The internet provides links to all sorts of tangential topics, how can the museum do the same and allow us to explore equally fascinating (and sometimes tangential) topics of our choosing?
Technological overlays could enhance the presentational nature of static exhibits and transform them into interactive research tools that put the guest in the driver’s seat. Imagine a digital heads-up display, integrated into a clear display case or panel in front of an art piece. With gesture recognition hardware linked to a computer database, the art or artifact becomes the touch point for multi-disciplinary research. Through the display, the guest can explore, not just the piece itself, but also the history of the object, the tools and techniques used to create it, the historical timelines that parallel its creation. You could, with the wave of a hand, learn more about the artist, link to other works that have a significant connection, grab a virtual magnifying glass and drag it across the canvas to “see” the brush work up close, or open video clips of experts and curators sharing interesting information about the item, and then record and share your own insights about the item for others to access.
Audio programs have become a ubiquitous part of the museum experience, but often they are simply dry recitations of facts and figures. These could be diversified to provide a unique point of view, to provoke a laugh, an epiphany or an opposing viewpoint. Imagine these audio devices featuring a selection of different voices each providing their own personal and sometimes biting commentary. What if, instead of the faceless avuncular voice museum audio programs currently employ, we could hear Jon Stewart’s take on this exhibit? Or David Sedaris? Or the creator of the artwork that’s on display. Suddenly, each visit to the museum takes on a new personality and a new point of view that contrasts sharply with the last, leading the guest to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
In this way, the audio track enhances the exhibit like the director’s commentary on the bonus tracks of a motion picture DVD. Taken to the next logical conclusion, the audio commentary might be guest-created, with personal observations and Wikipedia-like modifications. Now the audio programs function like blog entries on the Internet, entries which are oftentimes more enjoyable than the articles themselves.
We want to play. We want to touch things, turn them around, take them apart,see how they work. Play is an important learning tool for both children and adults, and museums should provide hands on labs for grown ups whenever possible. Perhaps this is a painting studio, where we can get a first-hand appreciation of art techniques like highlights and shadows, brush work, color mixing, and so on. It might be an adult-scale paleontology dig pit, with real equipment instead of sand pails and shovels. Perhaps this is a kinetic physics lab, where we can create our own kinetic sculptures, build DaVinci’s incredible machines, or play with light and sound. This isn’t just an assortment of science center, touch-the-button-interactives, but a working shop where we can deconstruct, analyze, and touch the rudimentary components of the exhibit.
This is a place where the current museum model would be exploded: where the back-of-house spaces, the archives, the workshops, the libraries, would all be available to the public for unlimited use, and would no longer be the exclusive domain of the museum staff. This is an institute where the guest is the creator, the researcher, and the arbiter of the museum’s ever-changing content.
MUSEUMS AS AN EVENT
Ultimately, we see a blending of all these programs and resources until the museum becomes the anchor and hub for a new entertainment, a multifaceted and wide-ranging event, designed and directed by the museum, that immerses guests completely within the exhibit experience. The subjects of these events could be a single artwork, artifact (a White Star Lines dinner plate, say), even a significant date, 1492, for example, or 1968. Imagine an art event, for example, which is anchored by a single work, but which allows you to explore your own path within multiple disciplines as defined by the work. The art work is the catalyst for a totally unique, self-directed experience through connected subjects.
Say the featured work is, for example, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte. Surrounding the main piece are supporting, cross-discipline experiences that are totally unique, yet connected to the original piece through which you can freely roam. The evening begins with dinner in the restaurant surrounded by Seurat’s other works while the artist himself (a performer, in this case) discusses their importance. Afterwards, you might step into Seurat’s studio if you wish, slip on a smock and get your hands dirty as you paint and begin to understand and appreciate “pointillism”.
In the studio, you can see how the artist worked in a world without Photoshop and art supply stores. You might explore the chemistry paint and the colors Seurat used, how his canvases were framed and stretched, even how he made his own brushes.
Another hall then immerses you in a living history of the era, in a pub, perhaps surrounded by (and interacting with) the people depicted on the canvas. By talking with them, you learn their hopes, dreams, and daily struggles, and see and explore the social influences under which the art was created. Through open discussion you can understand why was this piece created, what the artist was trying to say, what he was responding to culturally or politically. In yet another gallery, you could trace the evolution of the piece in previous and future works. How was the creation of this painting inevitable, and how has it transformed what came after? Who were the other great thinkers, creators, pioneers at the time of this piece’s creation? In any case, the subject of the exhibit, whatever it may be, becomes impeccably relevant and indelibly memorable for the visitor.
Ultimately, we see the museum as a versatile destination with multiple uses. A sort of contemporary salon: a place where people can dine, sip coffee, read, share ideas, research, create. With a lush coffee shop or café at its core (that is interwoven with, not isolated from the exhibits), this new museum would become a hang-out, a social and ideological gathering place, with a library, a theater, even a creative laboratory with accessible studios and workshops.
During our discussion, one of my colleagues blurted, “My God we’re inventing college!” Indeed, like a college campus, this museum provides a safe haven for open discussion, exploration, invention and research, but this place would be available to students of every age, not just college kids.
OUT OF THE BOX
As we continued to explore these “what ifs,” we almost simultaneously realized that we had yet to really smash the old museum model. We may have shaken up the contents of the box, but we hadn’t yet taken them out of it. All of these previous notions assume that the museum is a separate institution located off the beaten path in its own separate and self-contained building.
But why must the museum insist we go to it? Instead, what if the museum board thinks more like a retail developer: find a way to bring the museum to where the people already are?
There is no good reason for museums to assume the additional effort and expense to physically add restaurants, workshops, libraries and theaters to create a social hub, when these destinations already exist and are thriving. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Main Street gave way to the suburban shopping mall. Ironically, in the 21st century, the mall is ceding to the lifestyle center: destinations where shopping and entertainment (complete with green spaces, rides and multi-use concert venues) commingle to create a bustling place to see and be seen. These regional neighborhoods, with their residential condominiums and apartments hovering above retail stores, movies, restaurants, even bowling alleys, have become America’s new Main Streets.
Museums exhibits would fit in this place as naturally as Starbucks. These smaller, satellite locations could either stand alone or work in support of a museum’s flagship institution. The museum would provide the brand for a franchise, not of stores, but of exhibit galleries through which the museum’s artifacts and programs would rotate. By inserting itself in a residential address that also happens to be a thriving commercial hub, the museum becomes an integral part of the neighborhood, where a visit to the gallery is as daily a routine as a grande latte.
In this location, guests are not captives in the museum. With their membership or paid admission, they can enter and exit as often as they like during the day. They can browse the galleries at their leisure, in digestible chunks, and then take a break and discuss the content over a meal at an adjacent restaurant, bistro, or coffee house, where still other exhibits are on display.
The museum also has the opportunity to extend beyond the gallery walls and provide a thematic overlay to the lifestyle center. Exhibits could become interwoven into the landscape and signage of the entire plaza, providing content while drawing guests to the facility at the same time.
Museums used to be the exclusive domain of the IMAX theater, but not any more. More and more studios are releasing large format versions of their films (now in digital 3D!) and the IMAX experience is quickly becoming de gigeuer at the local multiplex. Rather than compete with the studios, the IMAX could become a shared resource, showing the museum’s short subjects during the day and early evening before transitioning to the feature films later on.
What museum staffs cannot forget, whether they like it or not, is that museum admissions are, in the eyes of the guest, entertainment dollars. The money they pull from their pocket to pay the entry fee comes out of an ever-dwindling discretionary budget, and though that entertainment dollar is limited, entertainment options are anything but. Never mind the lofty mission goals and educational standards; today’s museum is competing directly with movies, theme parks, corporate brand experiences (i.e. The World of Coke, M&M’s World, etc), nightclubs, and restaurants for a tiny share of that
precious entertainment dollar. Rather than compete against these other offerings, we see museums collaborating with, intermingling among, and even perhaps, branding them.
In these challenging economic times, when endowments are dwindling and promised contributions shrink or disappear entirely, the museum must begin to focus on the sure revenue stream: admissions. True, most museums generate less than 25% of their revenue from ticket sales, and the average visitor spends less than $1.00 on retail and food and beverages, but these are past statistics, not rules. Why not open a restaurant within the museum walls? Why not build a gallery smack in the middle of a retail hub? Why not aggressively pursue the visitor’s entertainment dollar? This doesn’t mean turning away from the institutions goals, but it does require creativity to find a way to achieve the mission within a new business plan, one that focuses on the desires and interests of the guest, and that means understanding, responding to, and delivering on their expectations.