Every so often I realize I am having the same conversation so frequently, I might as well write it down and share it with everyone.
Today’s conversation is “How Museums Are Like Newspapers and What We Can Learn from That.” I haven’t come to any firm conclusions, yet, but it is an important topic and I would like to rope you into the discussion.
Synopsis: newspapers built a business model that focused on producing one thing (investigative journalism) but trained people to pay for something else (advertising). Then the internet came along and smashed that model by making it cheaper and easier to match buyers and sellers on the web, bypassing the newspaper.
People still value journalism. They happily consume, share and debate the news, but they expect it to be electronic, and free. Some people seemingly don’t even realize news comes from journalists (just like some children don’t know vegetables come from plants, I guess). I read a blithe comment from one article to the effect of “I don’t care if newspapers go away because I get my news from the links people share on Facebook to new stories.” Um…
Now newspapers are cascading through a series of experiments to find their new economic model—including paid online subscriptions with some free content (the New York Times); aggregating existing content, minimally paid or free bloggers (maybe even college student thesis’s) and online ads (Huffington Post); and hyperlocal niche print publications (The Washington Blade).
How is this like museums? For years, we trained people to pay for a visible set of experiences—exhibits, programs, services, cool buildings. Some of this payment was in the form of earned income, some philanthropic support. But most people don’t realize they were also paying for another, hidden set of activities core to museums’ identity: collecting, preserving, research and education.
The average person on the street doesn’t realize that museum collections are like an iceberg—90% hidden beneath the surface (i.e., in storage). In my experience, when told this, people are usually surprised and often appalled. (“You mean you have all this stuff we don’t get to see? Why?!?”) Not knowing what we have, they certainly don’t realize the expense entailed in tracking, caring for and conserving “all this stuff.” But at least the collections make a certain intuitive sense, once people think about it. Research comes out of left field. I’ve had conversations where people failed to believe that museums were research institutions, even when I cited specific examples. It just doesn’t fit their concept of the world.
And education? You can argue that this part of museums’ work is quite visible, but the fact is it goes unrecognized. AAM’s president, Ford Bell, is continually frustrated when, in his conversations with policy makers, funders, business people and just plain folks, he finds over and over again that museums are not regarded as “educational” institutions.
Why is this a problem? Because the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.
All of this is taking place in an era when supply (of material goods, information, experiences) far exceeds demand. People are surrounded by a plethora of choice, including the ability to consume a huge variety of entertainment online in the comfort of their own homes. Sure they love museums’ virtual content—they expect it, in fact. But we, like newspapers, haven’t figured out how to turn a profit from all the wonderful stuff we put on the web.
So what do we do about it?
First, we turn a threat into an opportunity, and use the internet to burst out of our opaque walls. Making digitized collections accessible in meaningful, compelling ways makes people aware that we have them, even if they aren’t paying to use them. Blogs, videos, augmented reality can all begin to make people aware of what conservation is, why it is needed, what it does for them. A new generation of researchers who blog, tweet, Fbook and Pin can share the process and passion of history, art and science. They can invite people to help with their work through crowdsourced participation and support their work through crowdfunding. And museums, and their representative associations such as AAM, can do a better job of documenting and sharing how the world is better because of the role we play in learning.
Will it be enough? Not by itself…but it’s a start. Weigh in with your thoughts on future economic models for museums below, as well as links to articles that might fuel the conversation.