Review of The Economist’s Special Report on Museums

Many of you will have read the special report on museums featured in The Economist’s holiday issue. The report included five articles:

Temples of delight

Discussing the current success of museums in terms of high visitor numbers; the success is due to the more visitor-centered attitude of modern museums.

The Bilbao effect

Exploring how thriving cultural centres have the power to make a city great.

On a wing and a prayer

Stating the popularity of Contemporary Art Galleries over other types of museums (possibly due to the strength of the contemporary art market).

Mad about museums

Reporting on the museum building boom in China and the many empty museums needing to be filled with collections that don’t exist yet.

Feeding the culture-vultures

Looking at the future and what museums need to do to keep alive such as playing to tourists, being niche, reaching out to different demographics, and creating international partnerships.

As you would expect from the Economist there is a big focus on money

  • museums induce tourists to spend and can earn a lot of money in taxes to help reinvigorate a city
  • museums are funded usually with a mix of public, corporate and individual giving
  • museums can make money by selling expertise to other museums
  • museums can generate income by loaning art
  • the recent slashing of public budgets means less funding for museums
  • contemporary art galleries are popular because of the growth of the art market in this sector (the super rich are diversifying their portfolios by investing in art)
  • not-for-profit museums take advantage of state and federal tax concessions (which can be seen as using poor people’s tax to pay for rich people’s pastime)

Overall the feature concluded that museums are successful and can continue to do well, for the most part. So what is this success due to according to the Economists analysis? The main reason pointed to is that museums have become more visitor centered.

The most fundamental change that has affected museums is the now almost universal conviction that they exist in order to serve the public. – Kennneth Hudson

We have changed museums from temples where we lectured at visitors and put our objects in a context-free vacuum into a place where visitor experience is facilitated according to the ways visitors want information served up to them.

Museums offer narratives in their exhibitions, provide a context for objects by linking them to other people and other places, work with digital experts to enable visitors to participate as well as watch and listen, and create innovative public programmes to bring in the young and inexperienced.

This isn’t anything new. I would argue that the use of technology and the mentality behind digital initiatives, giving the public greater control over the content of the museum and a means of interacting, is what is making us great and will continue to help us thrive. If we want to ensure the long term future we need to invest resources into, and reap returns from, digital interpretation.

What do you think? What is the key to our success?

And should success be qualified in terms of visitor numbers to begin with? Or should it be the more subjective notion of engagement (a difficult word to quantify)? Or is success merely survival? Whether museums can earn their right to stay alive by attracting funding?

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