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The Future of Museums: Mausoleums or Houses of Curiosity?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The following essay by Gregory Rodriguez introduces the Discussion Guide for the second annual CFM lecture, to be webcast next Wednesday, Jan. 27 2–3 p.m. ET. Register for the free webcast.

The words “museum” and “mausoleum” sound an awful lot alike. And according to two recent studies out of Washington, if America’s museum directors and curators don’t make some fundamental changes in the way they do business, their institutions might soon become tombs.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently published the sixth in a series of surveys it has conducted since 1982 that seek to measure public participation in the arts. The news was not good. The NEA found a notable decline in theater, museum and concert attendance and other “benchmark” cultural activities between 2002 and 2008. In 2002, 39.4% of people 18 and older participated in such events within the previous 12 months. Last year, that number had dipped to 34.6%. Sure, the economy probably has something to do with the drop. But if you look deeper into the study’s numbers, you will see that by and large cultural institutions are having a difficult time keeping pace with the demographic changes that are reshaping the American population.

Perhaps the most troubling news for museums in the NEA study is the declining percentage of Latino adults visiting the nation’s art museums. In 1992, the survey found that 17.5% of Latino adults had been to an art museum in the previous year. That number dropped to 16.1% in 2002 and 14.5% in 2008. A 2005 study out of UCLA found a similar trend in Southern California. Between 1984 and 2005, the rate of Latino museum attendance locally declined, while Anglo attendance saw a rise.

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Although some of that drop can be explained by the increase in the number of blue-collar immigrants, who may not visit museums because of financial or cultural reasons, there is evidence that museums have not done a great job of reaching out to the stratum of minority populations that does share the income and educational profile of Anglo culture lovers.

Last year, the Center for the Future of Museums published “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures.” Data from Reach Advisors, authors of the report, shows that only one in 10 “core museum visitors” today is non-Anglo. Given the fact that nonwhites are projected to make up roughly half of the national population by mid-century, that figure should terrify anyone who loves museums.

Why are museums lagging behind the demographic shift? According to the NEA study, museum-going — particularly art museums — is largely the province of people with higher educational attainment and incomes. Because whites have more years of education than Latinos or blacks (the NEA does not collect data on Asians), it makes sense that they have higher rates of museum attendance. That said, the NEA survey also shows that nationwide, only 26% of whites had visited a museum in the previous 12 months.

To me, this suggests that the most effective and realistic way for museums to catch up with demographic shifts is to try harder to reach the growing ranks of college-educated, English-speaking non-Anglos. In particular, they should be trying to create cultural habits of museum attendance among all first-generation college graduates. And, yes, though they may want to occasionally create exhibits that are ethnically targeted, these guardians of houses of curiosity welcome any and all who are curious about the wider world.

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