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Why Cities, Museums, and Soft Power

Category: Museum Magazine
The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art offers socially inclusive spaces to an increasingly diverse public.
The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art offers socially inclusive spaces to an increasingly diverse public.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of Museum magazine.

An adapted excerpt from Cities, Museums and Soft Power by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, available from The AAM Press in late April. Please go to for more information and to order your copy.

Museums and cities throughout the world are connecting in a soft power embrace.

Soft power is a concept that emerged a quarter century ago to describe international relations based not on military nor economic might, but on influence. Soft power is the ability to influence behavior using persuasion, attraction or agenda setting. Where the resources of “hard power” are tangible—force and finance—soft power resources are intangibles, such as ideas, knowledge, values, and culture. Networks and connectivity enable soft power to spread its influence farther and deeper via Web-based networks and networks of cities. And where there are cities, there are museums.

Political scientist Joseph Nye, who first formulated the term in 1990, recently explained in Soft Power Revisited: A Current History Anthology how soft power has increased dramatically in the 21st century as the Information Revolution helped to distribute information of all kinds worldwide. In 2000 there were 5 million websites in the world; today there are more than 1 billion, and more than a third of the global population is online. As a result, more people participate in international conversations that were once the exclusive domain of states and corporations that had the economic and military power to exercise control. Today, Nye notes, information can be launched, exchanged and turned into action more quickly, less expensively, and among more people and organizations than ever before in the history of humankind.

The twin characteristics of soft power—the rise of cities and the role of civil society—are pushing museums from the margins toward the center of soft power.

In the not-too-distant past, museums and the arts were mainly impacted by hard power, which is where their funding and governance originated. National governments of all types and large private corporations were the main patrons. They exercised influence, both directly and indirectly, on what museums displayed and collected and how they presented their material. Michele Acuto notes in Global Cities, Governance and Diplomacy, the Urban Link that during the Cold War, the CIA, in its propaganda war against communism at home and abroad, secretly financed abstract expressionist exhibitions to promote the superiority of American freedom and creativity. In the more distant past, museums were repositories for war trophies, whether acquired from internal wars of aggression against indigenous people or other marginalized religious and ethnic communities, or from external conflicts and colonial conquest. In the museum setting, these trophies became objects of curiosity, displayed to communicate ideas about power and the hierarchy of “civilizations,” so that there would be no doubt about the justice of “our empire” or the superiority of “our civilization.” The objects that had been gifted between rulers somehow validated the notion of high cultural achievement among civilizations that had diplomatic relations. Natural history museums established a scientific standard for displaying collections in a systematic way that would soon be employed by museums of anthropology and ethnography. Art museums organized their galleries by country and school, such as “Northern Renaissance” or “Italian School,” as though the political reality of ever-changing borders (and accompanying bloodshed) were somehow transcended by the glory of art.

Whether we date museums from the cathedral vault or the princely schatzkammer, from the great 18th-century universal collections or from childhood memories of geological wonders and terrifying dinosaurs, museums have always been powerful public spaces where the leading ideas of the time were presented. These ideas were often defined by the museum’s dominant patrons, based on the study of the objects that the collected and preserved. The ideas represented aren’t always good ideas. Sometimes they are very bad ideas indeed, like eugenics and imperialism and man’s “natural mastery” over nature. Nonetheless, museums are places where ideas are openly presented and contested—and have been for hundreds of years.

Now museums are in a process of transformation from government and private organizations to institutions of civil society. By civil society we mean the network of organizations that represent neither big government nor large corporations, but have their roots in the voluntary and nonprofit sectors—often referred to as the “third sector” of the economy. This transformation started in the United States, which has been highly innovative in creating and sustaining the voluntary, nonprofit sector. The voluntary sector has been the cultural ethos of American democracy from its earliest days. In the last 40 years, economic changes such as the increasing concentration of wealth in private hands have stimulated the growth of civil society institutions worldwide. Economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin explains in The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism that the nonprofit economy is growing faster than the for-profit economy in many countries. More and more museums are being shifted from the governmental and corporate sectors to the nonprofit sector. This shift in patronage has led to new governance structures that reflect a plurality of voices and influences. Rifkin explores how museums are finding themselves with new roles, responsibilities, and expectations as a consequence of their place in civil society.

As government financing decreases both proportionately and in absolute numbers, the museum sector has become more dependent on new forms of patronage from foundations, philanthropists, sponsorship and earned sources. This has resulted in a change from inward-looking, collection-focused institutions to outward-facing, donor-and visitor-focused ones. This generational change occurred in two stages, and this book proposes that they are about to undergo a third—becoming centers of soft power.

The first stage was heralded by the American Association of Museums in 1992 when it released its landmark report, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. The second transformation followed within a decade and can best be characterized as “Experience and Branding.” From within the museum sector, there was a strong impetus to expand and intensify the impact that museums were having on the public. Books like B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy argued that people were no longer buying products but rather experiences. Museum professionals knew that they provided experiences in their galleries and programs. Now, these experiences needed to be enhanced and packaged—packaged through branding.

Museums suddenly had a new importance in the city. They were contemporary landmarks. Not only brands in and of themselves, but also incorporated into the brand of the city. Museums were now seen as an integral part of the promise of their cities.

In 2000, the opening of Tate Modern in London was seen as a triumph of branding. Tate became synonymous with London as the capital of “Cool Britannia.” This dynamic combination of experience and brand became the foundation for a consumer boom in museums, helping to overcome some of the marketing defects from which museums have suffered: for example, that the permanent collection will “always be there,” so there is no urgency to visit. The big experience—whether it is the Museum of Modern Art’s 2013 “Rain Room” or the famous traveling “The Treasures of King Tut” of the 1970s and ’80s—is time bound. You need to consume it during the limited time it is there, in your city or on your screen.

New technology and impressive architecture certainly intensified the experience. The remarkable success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, inaugurated in 1997, proves that the experience of space and place can be more memorable than the exhibitions. The Guggenheim “brand” expresses the meaning of this museum—its sophistication and its relationship to the world of nonobjective art.

The explosion in “experience architecture” highly influenced the brand of the museum and the brand of the city. In many cases, the experience of the building was the experience of the museum. When Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin opened in 2001, it was without exhibits—the building itself was the storyteller. Symbolic storytelling museum buildings continue to attract visitors and debate: Le musée du quai Branly (Paris 2006), Jean Nouvel’s metaphorical journey into the worlds of “the other”; the EMP Museum (Seattle 2000), which Frank Gehry shaped after Jimi Hendrix’s smashed electric guitar; the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (under construction in Dhahran) evokes the subterranean stones, the source of petroleum and gas that brought cultural change to Saudi Arabia. Experience architecture creates new landmarks, speaking even to those who never enter the building.

The third stage in the generational transformation of museums is just beginning: the shift from sites of branded experience to places of soft power.

The emerging soft power of museums responds to three social realities: competition among cities for talent, tourism and investment; the forces of globalization and information technology, resulting in new forms of citizenship; and the growing public participation of women.

As of 2008, for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world population lives in cities, and cities account for 80 percent of the global GDP. In wealthy countries, about 80 percent of the population already lives in cities—and city populations in the rest of the world are continuing to grow toward comparable levels. This means that enormous numbers of people are migrating to cities, between and within countries. Property costs are rising in cities worldwide. Cities are on the leading edge of managing the integration process, as new residents and old learn to live together. Cities throughout the world are evolving their own soft power to advocate for solutions to global issues affecting their residents.

Cities use their soft power to compete in attracting talented workers, clean knowledge-based industries, and high-spending tourists. The creative economy consists of science, engineering, research and development, technology-based industries, arts, music, culture, design, and the knowledge-based professions of health care, finance, and law. One hundred years ago during the era of the industrial economy, fewer than 10 percent of the population was employed in this way. Today, according to economist Richard Florida, it is as high as 47 percent in Singapore, 46 percent in Amsterdam and 37 percent in Toronto.

Florida has persuasively argued that creative workers gravitate to certain urban environments because the creative economy depends on access to people and ideas, not to land, natural resources or raw materials. Creative workers can and do move from place to place in pursuit of the best work environments.

As the principal custodians of human capital, cities experience the immediate benefits of a healthy, happy, productive and sustainably growing population. Conversely, cities suffer the consequences of poverty, marginalization, pollution, inequality, and unemployment. Cities are addressing urban challenges by mobilizing networks, including universities and colleges, cultural institutions and museums, government agencies, private sector organizations and individual citizens using their soft power to change behavior or to come up with innovative solutions.

The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art offers socially inclusive spaces to an increasingly diverse public.

Cities are magnets for civil society organizations in a myriad of fields, such as health care, poverty reduction, environment, democracy and the arts. The new and expanded museums built in the last 17 years are mainly located in cities: 44 percent in cities of 1.5 million people or more and 20 percent in smaller cities with populations between 200,000 and 1.5 million, according to professor and researcher Guido Guerzoni. Formerly referred to as “the third sector,” it is now being described as the social commons where people generate “the goodwill that allows society to cohere as a cultural entity,” says Rifkin in The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

Prominent museum associations are asking how museums, which are now more than ever civil society institutions, can contribute to this social commons. The Museum Association in the UK launched a campaign on July 1, 2013, called “Museums Change Lives,” promoting the impact of museums on “individuals, communities, society and the environment.” The American Alliance of Museums has themed its 2015 Annual Meeting “The Social Value of Museums.”

Cities attract visitors, including tourists, visiting friends and relatives, and students. Many of these visitors immerse themselves in the city’s values as expressed in the city brand—tours, festivals, events, shopping, museums, theater, sights and sounds and contact with citizens. With over a billion tourists annually worldwide, tourism has become a significant economic, social and cultural force. Tourism is being harnessed to address a number of issues, from the environment to development goals. Museums are particularly suited for tourism. Unlike many other cultural forms in the city, they are open throughout the year, offer facilities for group tours and enable an instant overview of a new culture and city for a wide range of travelers.

The very idea of citizenship derives from the city and the special status that was conferred on city dwellers. Today citizenship is a matter for national governments and involves issues of sovereignty. And perhaps paradoxically, not all citizens (city dwellers) are equal.

A global city is a place where the services essential to the work of globalization congregate: the lawyers, accountants, management consultants, hedge-fund managers and the like—those who are needed to operate international corporations.

Renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen points out in The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo three “structural facts” about global cities: they concentrate wealth among owners, partners, and professionals associated with the global firms; they are increasingly disconnected from their region and country; they are also home to a large marginalized population that does not benefit from the financial activities of the big firms. Global cities are unequal and growing more so every day. They are in fact two cities: one experienced by its elite in fenced-off, privatized spaces; and another experienced by the service workers, industrial workforce, unemployed, children and youth whose sense of belonging or home is fragile and easily taken away. Museums are increasingly funded by the elites even as they turn their programming toward the others.

While global cities are at the forefront of technology and development, often creating new nodes of power, the structured inequality of contemporary global cities is surprisingly similar to the postcolonial city. One impact of colonialism on cities was to formalize inequality by turning “natives” into migrants and foreigners. This legacy is exacerbated today by the forces of globalization and increasing sprawl.

Most major cities are home to a number of immigrants, labor migrants and others who are part of equally complex, transnational networks. It may seem invisible and powerless, but this labor class is also developing new forms of power and influence through trade and soft power.

Public libraries are creating spaces for people to exercise agency through information technology. It is no coincidence that Toronto, which welcomes 125,000 immigrants a year, also has the top performing public library system in North America. Toronto’s library system, like so many others, exemplifies the “sharing economy” and the social commons: everyone has access to information in an uplifting space where people can build a shared sense of identity and trust. Most library systems are civil society institutions that are city-or county-funded and governed by local citizens with support from foundations and friends organizations. Museums are studying libraries to learn from their experience.

Studies have shown that women make up nearly two-thirds of service workers, 60 percent of university campuses, 60 percent of students in courses related to the cultural sector (UK) and more than half the creative class. Women also participate more on social media than men. While women continue to be underrepresented in spheres of political power, they continue to flock to civil society, voluntary and philanthropic organizations and online participation. Women have a better chance of being in a leadership role in the social commons than they do in the political realm, although the glass ceiling here is also thick and bruising.

Women have been relatively successful in the social and cultural commons, including city government, compared to national and state-level political processes and in corporations. Museums in particular offer women an important role in the public realm that they may not have otherwise.

In the U.S. and the UK, women are still underrepresented as directors in the major museums, although the disparity is mostly driven by the largest museums. For most museums, however, with budgets of less than $15 million, female directors on average earn $1.02 for every dollar that male directors earn. In addition, women comprise about 63 percent of all professional and senior-level staff in the field, twice the average representation of men. The percentage may be even higher if one counts women who are currently serving as interim directors, consultants, and heads of professional associations and university museum studies programs.

AAM’s 2014 National Museum Salary Study showed that in the U.S., women outnumber men 2 to 1 in director positions of small museums, those with annual operating budgets up to $250,000. “The disparity decreases with budget size,” the study states, “and at museums with budgets at or above $1M, the ratio flips and men start to outnumber women. At museums with budgets over $3M, the ratio of female to male directors is 1 to 1.3.” Women directors earn only 71 cents for every dollar paid to male directors, the study showed, as calculated from the median in this field-wide survey.

While there are still disparities between the genders in museums, notably among the most senior positions in major museums, on the whole, women are more powerful in museums than in other cultural industries where they represent less than half of the workforce. Women comprise the majority of museum workers but have still not achieved equality in the executive offices or in the boardroom. The power that women have is based in the social commons. Museums may open up a new front for feminism and soft power.

Museums are beginning to understand themselves as networked civil society institutions with soft power that can enhance the importance of cities and empower their residents and visitors. Museums enhance the soft power of cities when they are signifiers of pride and distinctiveness; when they are anchors providing stability, memory, employment and a forum for exchanging ideas; and when they are nodes in an international cultural network promoting lasting relationships among and between cultural workers and civil society.

Museums empower people when they are patrons for artists and thinkers; when they amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policy makers and leaders. The very presence of museums signifies that a city is proud of its culture.

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