Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Ails Museums (and What Could Help)

Recently there have been several articles and blog posts all talking about the same thing, but approaching it from different angles. The subject du jour? The potential obsolescence of our profession--or to use one author's term, "fossilization,"--and how to prevent it. What are some of the key components of our mass destruction?

-- Not responding to changing demographics
-- Ignoring technology
-- Holding fast to the notion of monolithic structures

Gregory Rodriguez writes in his LA Times article that, according to a study released by the NEA last Thursday, attendance has been steadily dropping in museums for the past few years, largely because museums are not responding to the changing demographics of the American population. While the majority of museum visitors continue to be white, by mid-century the American population is predicted to be half people of color. Rodriguez posits that focusing on wooing the rising educated, middle-class Latino population could go a long way to helping museums stay in business. (For more on this topic, see this blog post)

Matt Matcuk of the Field Museum talks about not changing demographics but rather rapidly advancing technologies. Once again, however, the message seems to be the same: things are changing and museums are not keeping up. Matcuk poses three questions to help guide museums into effective ways of viewing and using new technology.

1. Are we competing with new technologies, or integrating them?
"What we have to offer doesn't compete with technology and is not undone by it. The core of our attracting power--authentic objects, immersive experiences, personal interactions--will continue to serve us, and can only benefit by being explored through today's technologies."

2. Are we hastening our own irrelevance by thinking ourselves superior to contemporary electronic culture?
"Adapting how we use technology in response to our visitors' needs is only a compromise if we view education as an inherently top-down enterprise. But that attitude--"We know what's good for you, and we're going to give it to you"--is no longer tenable, if it ever was."

3. Is technology the "demon rum" of the 21st century?
"New technologies are just like telephones, inviting neither invective nor adoration. They're just there--a part of our world. If places of informal learning focus on the technology itself rather than on the message, our efforts will appear as quaint as a mid-twentieth century car advertisement touting the miracle of the automatic transmission."

Matcuk closes with these words of caution (or prediction):
In the end, places of informal learning are subject to the same dictum that rules the natural world. Environmental pressures will force us in one of two directions: evolution, or extinction.

Finally, Robin Pogrebin's December 11 article in the New York Times suggests that perhaps there is one arena in which museums have been spending too much time "keeping up"--to our detriment. As Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art was quoted as saying, "There is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to museum building." But "keeping up with the Joneses" does not imply strategic planning and as a result, recently there has been a rash of major capital projects--new buildings and major expansions--in the museum and arts world that have been scaled down, are being rethought or have simply been abandoned, exposing institutions as over-stretched and sometimes suffering from poor management.

The question remains, however, if we follow the advice explicit or implicit in each of these articles--become more relevant to rising demographics, approach technology as the tool that it is rather than either as the devil or a god and focus on the sustainability of our buildings rather than their eye-dazzling civic appeal--will that be enough to save us? What else do we need to be focusing on to maintain the health and vitality of not just our organizations but our field?


No comments:

Post a Comment