I just finished reading two sections’ worth of museum updates in the New York Times, and I’m both inspired and sad.

The amount and diversity of exhibits around the country is stunning, and I’m encouraged by how many creative and passionate people must be working behind the scenes to make that happen.

I’m also impressed that the Times chooses to produce such a feature. Say what you want about their reporting but I’d bet that their museum sections are one-of-a-kind. It’s truly cool.

What makes me sad is that most museums suck.

I say it with a heavy heart, and it stings even more because the condition is entirely self-inflicted.

Museums weren’t always museums

Before there were museums, there were curiosity cabinets (also called wunderkammer, which is roughly translated from German as “room of wonder”).

Royalty and then rich people in the 16th and 17th centuries would collect their prized metals and jewels and put them on display for their fellow toffs in cabinets and rooms dedicated to showcasing their wealth and good taste.

This practice expanded to include stuff they’d collected on their travels (or acquired by people they’d hired to find it). The more exotic or potentially important the objected, the better it reflected on their good taste and purchasing power.

Remember, the sciences of the day were still mired in alchemy and religious superstition, and aspirational belief often took the place of substantive proof.

So, these collections were filled with unicorn horns, dragon bones, bits of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and endless amounts of detritus from other places, beings, and events that may or may not have been real.

Curiosity cabinets didn’t provide answers as much as they prompted questions. I can only imagine that visiting a wunderkammer was akin to attending a happening comprised of puzzles and riddles.

Then museums got serious

The British Museum was founded in the mid-1700s upon a curiosity cabinet and then the collections in the Palace of Louvre were opened to the public in 1793.

This ushered in a new way of thinking about museums as something more than entertainment for the wealthy; instead, collections of stuff could be used to educate the governed to have a better appreciation of their governments. Smarter citizens would be better ones, or so the reasoning went.

Museums proliferated around the world (and with world’s fairs), as did the application of more stringent controls on what got displayed in them. The sciences got more rigorous, including the practices of archaeology and anthropology, so the unicorn horns disappeared.

Granted, the exhibits were often centered on stuff that had been pilfered and then interpreted through the prevalent biases of race and gender, but the intention was clear:

Museums were meant to provide answers, not raise questions.

Why that doesn’t work anymore

Museums played a useful role in a world without the Internet or equal access to education. Like public libraries, they allowed people to connect with a world beyond their immediate circumstances. Exhibits displayed things that folks would otherwise never see, so when the experiences dictated what they were supposed to know and believe, they were all to happy to comply.

Museums knew best.

Only that doesn’t work anymore, for at least three reasons:

First, there’s the Internet, which operates kind of like a huge, complicated, and poorly organized Museum of Everything. The amount of stuff already available digitally on our phones raises the bar incredibly high for getting people to physically visit a museum.

Second, those folks who make it to a museum ruin it for others as well as for themselves. People have kinda forgotten how to function in public spaces. We talk loudly, stand in front of one another, and are otherwise obsessed with ourselves in lieu of engaged with our surroundings.

Third, there aren’t enough compelling reasons to go back. The bulk of the content in museums is static (it doesn’t change, since it’s vetted, factual stuff). Museums are like the interior of those old Blockbuster stores that were filled with old titles that nobody wanted to rent.

They don’t know how to solve the problem

At risk of making a sweeping generalization, museums not only don’t know how fix things but are actively engaged in making them worse.

To compete with the Internet, museums digitize their content and fill their exhibits with digital media. This “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach is doomed because it just means they’re competing with the entirety of the Internet on its terms (forsaking the potential of their notable differentiation as physical spaces).

A museum online is no different from Discovery Channel.

Faced with crowds making visits unpleasant, they encourage them without giving much thought to people movement or crowd control. Timed entries are common but what happens once people are inside is usually undiscovered country (encouraging people to wear guided tour headsets makes them oblivious to the congestion they cause).

This means a great day for attendance is usually a bad one for attendees.

And few if any them have cracked the code on getting locals to become regular visitors. Many museums rely on traveling exhibits to draw interest, and these displays are usually lowest-common-denominator stuff, kinda like the sitcoms on old broadcast TV. Even if they’re successful — at bringing in crushing crowds — they can’t happen frequently or reliably enough to make museum visiting a habit.

Museums need to get “un-serious” again

Museums are institutions filled with institutional memory and managed by people trained in managing institutions. Experts compare their work and talk to one another at conferences. Change comes slowly and is rarely surprising.

Museums are an industry ripe for disruptive innovation.

There’s enough data to provide the framework for what that might include, such as:

  • Experiences as theater, not presentation or lecture.
  • Collections as challenges, not curated set pieces.
  • Content as discursive, not linear.
  • Elements that wouldn’t work on a website or smartphone.
  • Visitors as collaborators, not competitors for line-of-sight.
  • Narratives that extend past single visits to draw people back.
  • Surprise, novelty, and risk being wrong.

How to do it

I defer to the experts, but I bet it starts with stepping back from the idea that museums’ role is to educate and instead start with the premise that they must engage and entertain..first and foremost. It doesn’t matter if you’re right about something if nobody knows or cares about it.

It probably involves separating the education and experience departments and letting the former pursue academic brilliance while the latter figures out how to put on a better show. It would mean looking far outside the confines of museum practices and learning about the tools of immersive theater, improv comedy, and other live experiences.

It could involve establishing a “no-digital here” canon that keeps exhibit designers from defaulting to gee-wiz tech as a substitute for more nuanced, human-based solutions.

It would certainly result in exhibits that are conceived, executed, and then swapped out faster, more cheaply, and more meaningfully than they are now. It might help complementing success metrics like attendance with measures of engagement and meaning.

Today’s special sections in the New York Times reminded me why I love museums, and why I see such opportunity for them to do more and be more to more people.

They also made me sad.

Categories: EssaysInnovation