Please join for an amble through some issues of interest… (The last time I did this here it was about technology issues and museums. This time it is about a couple of things that have arisen about the state of museums generally.)
A very important conversation just happened here on the radio this week, and we want to be sure to help further both the broadcast and the on-going, necessary exchange through westmuse.
Scott Shafer hosted a dialogue on KQED’s Forum entitled Museums in Recession. KQED notes:
The number of adults attending arts and cultural events in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level since 1982, when the National Endowment for the Arts began tracking it. While there is some good news – California ranked near the top among states for art museum attendance – the study found the decline to be especially prominent among Latinos. We discuss the role of museums in a changing demographic.
Those whom KQED’s Forum engaged included:
- Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums
- Gregory Rodriguez, op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times and founder and executive director of Zocalo Public Square (see Allyson Lazar’s recent westmuse post “Sit Up and Take Note”)
- Jim DeMersman, president of the California Association of Museums (check out their gorgeous, new site http://calmuseums.org/) and director of the Amador-Livermore Valley Historical Society
- Lori Fogarty, executive director of the Oakland Museum of California
To listen now click here.
These are scary times, friends. The Claremont Museum of Art is closing. “Two and a half years after bursting into life in a historic, former fruit packing plant, the Claremont Museum of Art is on death’s door,” writes Suzanne Muchnic on the LA Times blog Culture Monster.
In Fresno, CA an “..exhibitor pulled 65 etchings by Marc Chagall over the weekend fearing the Metropolitan Museum is about to shut for good...[being] more afraid that he’d be unable to retrieve the art if the faltering museum padlocks its doors.”
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs completed its run at the Dallas Museum of Art as the most popular exhibition in the Museum’s history, drawing in 664,000 ticketholders since its October 2008 opening. Additionally, the Museum reached a historic high in attendance, welcoming for the first time more than one million visitors to date in the 2009 fiscal year. The King Tut exhibition, which was accompanied by more than 500 special programs, brought in thousands of first-time visitors from throughout the region and nearly 110,000 students to experience the Museum and its encyclopedic collections.
And with King Tut’s present reign at the de Young in San Fransisco, the museum is now reported to be one of the few museums in the country that is able to remain in-the-black based on admissions income, a phenomenal even unheard-of accomplishment for anyone who has tracked a museum’s bottom line.
I’ve been thinking about what I learned in China, and the little exchange with the tour guide and the driver. Sad to say, they were right. The most memorable and engaging places were not the museums – the air-conditioned enclosures with objects protected behind glass and neat little labels – but the living spaces: restored temples, rustic gardens, village courtyards, public squares, orphanages, and outdoor and indoor markets. These well-trafficked spaces – where daily life is lived and lots of things just sort of happen – were the places where I learned the most and found the greatest inspiration.
What do we do as museum professionals, when industry thought leaders like Ron Chew fundamentally question what museums contribute to a tourist’s understanding of another culture? Having been to China recently, I do not really agree with Chew’s assessment of museums there.
The Forbidden City may be one of the world’s largest and finest museums. As Chew concedes “In Beijing, the Forbidden Palace is called a museum.” Then he questions it after his visit, “Was all of that a museum?”
But what greater re-purposed, repossessed, once-limited access stately collection has been so transformative? Isn’t that one of the fundamental definitions of a type of museum à la the Louvre? And isn’t the Eastern reverence for the object something to which museums should aspire?
In fact, I was quite struck by how much the word “museum” was adopted in China, perhaps or, um, of course to attract tourism. But is that bad for our industry? Our cultures? Our globe-spanning societies? One of the world’s great mind-boggling experiences is to visit the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Xian.
And even the traditional “air-conditioned enclosure” model-type museum in Xian — the Shanxi History Museum — as desolate, large and new-though-musty as it was…was a really important time-space experience for me and my wife in our understanding and appreciation of our shared experience in China, our shared humanity.
Now, I might imagine Ron’s piece for the Center for the Future of Museums was mainly anecdotal. He might generally agree with me in more direct dialogue. I also find it interesting that Chew may have been so successful in his life’s work to help the museum field to fathom better the transcendent power of museums. I see the term “museum” as a meaningful catchall that invites and inspires. He may still find the word limiting, or more something to excel beyond.
Where are we? Is a retrenchment necessary? Are we diluted by audience-focused missions? Or not diverse and relevant enough?!
As part of a dialogue on Museums 3.0 called Museum as Soup Kitchen Elaine Heumann Gurian asks for feedback as she posits, “It is clear to me that museums could be much more helpful and timely by changing hours, job retraining, health care information and all manner of social service.”
And one of America’s great chroniclers of this nation’s history of museum’s Marjorie Schwarzer responds in a comment that captures an inspired and spontaneous spirit:
HI Elaine, I am in the middle of writing an article for Museum News on how museums responded in the 1930s (before the WPA) and have spent two days digging through archives from 1929 – 1934. The results are fascinating! As expected, museums were slow to react in the 1930s, since no one really knew what was going on or how deep the impact would be. We have the gift of history, archives and insight to help guide us and that’s a lot! But here are some things that they did do that are noteworthy: a) they looked at new technologies (in this case, it was radio broadcasts!); b) they re-focussed their collecting on American-made items; c) there was a huge effort to document and archive; c) they began to advocate for employee benefits (in those days, that meant pensions for retiring folks); d) they began to develop and evaluate games (!!); e) there was an enormous push toward educational activities and adult education — including free re-training for “unemployeed persons”. And this was all before the WPA was enacted and occured organically.
For one thing, all eyes are and will be on the Oakland Museum of California:
In May 2010, the Museum will welcome back visitors and introduce the reconfigured History and Art Galleries. The new galleries will include digital and interactive features to encourage visitors to experience California’s many stories and voices, and add their own. Much of the signage and exhibit copy will be in Spanish and Chinese, as well as English. Californians can expect to see their history and culture represented throughout the Museum.
There’s lost of upside here, people. Despite the bad news, we’ re hanging strong in fact. In the KQED Forum discussion Elizabeth Merrit says, “One of the great things about America is that anyone can start a museum, and often does…” Thanks, Dan Spock, for pointing out to me that The Big House, The Allman Brothers Band Museum finally just opened in Macon, GA.
The bottom line is that museums can make a difference. Ron Chew taught us with his brain seeds, his Wing Luke Asian Museum, an industry standard bearer for community-driven, identity-based institutions.
And it is this very, present exploration being led by those within the field that proves the ability and perhaps the need for museums to continue to innovate in meaningful ways.
Join the conversation! Give your feedback here. And be a part of WMA in Portland 2010 for #wmaportland75. Session proposals are being accepted now on-line.
If you would like to participate by submitting a session proposal, please first read the guidelines here; then download the submission form,; fill it out, and email it to the Program Committee co-Chairs, Jacqueline Cabrera and Merritt Price at email@example.com by January 15, 2010.
If you prefer to submit your session via an online form, please CLICK HERE!