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GP 15 February 2006: Museums: Is There a Muse in the House?

Louisiana.  Somewhat north of Copenhagen lies Helsingor, a good place to stop for a while before you attack Sweden, which is just a short ferry ride away.  There lies Hamlet’s castle and some awfully nice people.  It’s vital to take a day trip from there to Louisiana, a lovely museum that is not a monument to posterity, but instead a warming experience for the here and now.  There’s the water, and the sculpture about the garden, and some well displayed art (but sparingly, thank goodness).  Even now we are remembering green and white—the grounds and the manse.  Sure there’s modern art aplenty, but it’s not in your face, and not allowed to deface the environment.  Louisiana has a larger sense of itself, the complex now including a Children’s Wing which was added after our visit, rooms where companies can hold conferences, a conference hall, an educational mission, and so forth.  It’s one of the great small museums that we would go out of our way for.

Not so, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Though we spent hour after hour there in yesteryear, we find it all too much now.  It’s a temple of the Gilded Age meant to house objects, more objects that you can imagine.  We can say that we absolutely hate to come into the main lobby, where you painfully wade through lines to drop your raincoat or to buy an admission ticket.  It’s Grand Central Station without the charm.  A good friend took us on a special guided walking tour there recently, and that was novel and entertaining. We rekindled an old game we use to play: each of us picked our favorite painting in each room and then compared our choices a few minutes later.  Generally, however, we avoid the place, only going for a lecture or a meal in the members’ dining room.  It’s too much tumult.

Back in 1994-95, when we were first introduced to the Internet by a very jolly information sciences professor, we visited the Louvre and were knocked off our stumps.  Since, we have thought, that’s the way to see ungainly museums.  A virtual tour of the Louvre is a whole lot of fun.   And that’s about how we would like to see the Metropolitan in the present day.

Monumental Architecture.  Art aside, almost every museum in the land (in the world, for that matter) seems to be turning itself into an architectural gem or, at worst, into a rare vase.  We’re having a second Gilded Age, with every city that has global pretensions sporting a new art palace.  Happily, Professor Richard Francis has been kind enough to talk about this for us in “The Explosion of Museum Architecture”, which has been added to the Global Province just this week.

This phenomenon bears examination for several reasons.  First off, museums are about the only place where architects are creating interesting structures.  By and large, banality is the order of the day elsewhere, not only because of financial strictures, but because of a failure of nerve and imagination at corporations, universities, governments, and other potential patrons who should be thinking of greatness.

Philosophically, we can ask whether the Eminent Victorians had it right.  Is museum architecture sounding a death knell for us?  Maybe, as some of them posited, mankind is only to be a brief bubble or disturbance in the solar system destined to vanish, unrecorded, in a 1,000 years or so.  If our greatest architecture now is all dedicated to housing memories, maybe it is all over for us.  We hope not.

Falling Attendance.  But there may also be a terrible irony afoot here as well.  We may be building thousands of lovely white elephants—well wrought anachronisms.  In fact, countless museums are getting a bit cavernous, with attendance figures dwindling.  As we made clear in “Empty Palaces”, there are signs that people are staying home in droves.  It’s no secret that professional sports really have to make their money from TV revenues and that games are now staged with TV in mind.  The movie theaters are no longer packin’ ‘em in and have only maintained revenues by charging ungodly prices: TV and DVD revenues are terribly important.  Increasingly, a busy and harassed populace prefers its home theater and virtual pleasures.

The Milwaukee Museum, for all intents and purposes, has already gone through bankruptcy, taken down by over-optimistic assumptions about its future.  It has been resurrected somewhat under new management and will, we suppose, eventually dig itself out of its hole.  And the Milwaukee Art Museum is not doing a whole lot better.  As Dr. Francis remarks, Santiago Calatrava has done a fabulous add-on to the original Saarinen building.  But the trustees’ ambitions have proved larger than their pocketbooks.  Years before, when their hearts were young and gay, the museum impresarios had staged an exhibition on “Museums for a New Millennium,” the memory of which must make their faces redden now.

As usual, a small entrepreneurial museum is showing us what must be done to make museums viable.  Bruce Courson’s Sandwich Glass Museum was caught in the death spiral afflicting rural museums until he devised a new strategy.  With attendance falling, most museum directors raised admission prices, which in turn drove more people away, so they raised prices again: that’s a strategy for going out of business.  Courson said he had to change and improve the product.  He raised the endowment, funded new kinds of activities, but kept the price at the door constant.  Lo and behold, he has increased attendance and put his finances in order.  Courson ladled out some new delectables on everybody’s plate.  The changes, to us, seem profound enough to say he didn’t just change the product—he changed the museum.

Re-Inventing the Non-Profits.  Towards the end of his career, Peter Drucker busied himself with the non-profit sector.  He knew you could not have a cohesive society unless it was functioning well.  We only wish he had had a bit more time on this earth to fiddle with non-profits: we don’t think he ever quite understood how deeply they had to be redone. Charities, universities, museums—the whole ball of wax.

Fifteen years ago we tackled a non-profit business organization that was shrinking by the minute.  On the back of an envelope we did a strategy, we said: “You’re focused on the U.S. and you trot out research that does not have any bottom line.  The prescription is: Go global and give your membership the tools to become 60% global themselves.”  This client got half the job done.  It went global, but it never came up with the global toolkit.  Even so it’s a success today, just not the blockbuster it could have been.

In broad terms, museums have to also re-invent themselves.  Their task is to help citizens in each country deal with global forces they find overwhelming, such that they have  rebelled against globalism in Seattle and elsewhere.  Stated briefly, museums need to think of themselves as homes away from home that bathe their membership in a cultural atmosphere that completes the identity of each individual.

Today many are living in cramped quarters made of cheap components dished out by Home Depot or other flawed purveyors.  There’s a chance that one factor fueling rising rates of emotional depression in all the developed countries is the close, sterile living spaces that have become the norm.

At least for a part of the week, the museum may provide the visitor with a civilized, warm cocoon.  There, too, he can be submerged in culture.  Museums can own the culture market, because colleges, schools, theaters, and others that have traditionally been media for dispensing culture have lost that capacity, as the nature of the experiences there become more production-like and less imbued with a love of learning.

Some Dimensions.  What would the new museums be like?  Interesting to think about.  We imagine:

a. They will be even more inter-active.  Modern man is not passive, and he will not visit a place where he is meant to keep his hands in his pockets.  Successful museums for children, such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium, and a host of others, urge kids to do lots of things.  Adults need exactly the same thing, for the “child is the father of man."

b. They will display less (for usually they are littered to death by the curators) but will allow access to much more.  In “Show Me the Monet” (February 10, 2006,  pp. W1 and W10), The Wall Street Journal lays out  how little from each museum’s larder one really gets to see and how the persevering can gain entry to hidden treasures.  Museums will need more offsite exhibits, both in museum annexes located elsewhere and in public spaces unconnected to museums.

c. They will have large comfortable public spaces.  The master-builder Louis Kahn put up a host of great museums.  The powers-that-be at Yale, last we saw, ruined his Yale Art Gallery, partitioning it to meet the needs of curators, etc.  The Kimball in Fort Worth, however, seems to have survived unscathed: it is a beautiful experience to walk about this museum, even if you never take in an artifact.  A museum needs to exude the freedom that can only arise in a vast handsome space, something that is curiously missing in Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter Museum just across from the Kimball.

d. They will make as much out of the outside as the inside.  Before it got grandiose, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was the right stop when one came into town of an afternoon.  You might go to the unpretentious café for tea first and stare out into the lovely courtyard.  Well, that’s all gone now.  Louisiana, of course, has gotten it right.  The Museum of Natural History in New York could be handsome outside, but there has not been the will to overcome the present dreariness.

e. They will have serious libraries with opulent virtual resources.  And, of course, there will be comfortable work spaces for rent to researchers and others with serious undertakings.  Certainly every work in the museum will be available online.

f. They will have much better museum shops.  These are profit centers for all museums and yet they are almost universally tacky.  The merchandise is cheap, ephemeral and overpriced.  The catalogs are not well put together and are not realizing the kind of revenues they should.  Rob Walker and others have written about the tentative experimentation in museum retailing.  Since museum staffs are so divorced from the realities of the marketplace, these shops should be critical learning tools for everybody from trustees to curators.

The New Museum.  As we understand it, the museums at the beginnings of the western world were temples to the Muses, the nine young goddesses who presided over the arts, literature, and the sciences.  That’s about what they must become again, we suspect, if they are not to become excrescences.  In the Gilded Age, we needed to count our wealth and required tombs in which we could inter our treasures.  Now we require homes away from homes, idealized environments that are, frankly, better than our homes, environments where the Muses would feel free to roam and where we could catch their inspiration.  Perhaps the re-created museums will be called “musees.”

We will be talking about “Reinventing the Museum” in the Agile Companies section of the Global Province frequently.  As we have said elsewhere, our society needs to redo every aspect of our infrastructure.  But that does not mean more of the same.  The question is how we redo our infrastructure so that it better fits the world we now live in.

The Peabody Essex Museum.  It’s been years since we have visited the Peabody Essex, but it was a comfortable foray at the time, certainly our best discovery in Salem.  Apparently, since, its directors debated whether it should move to Boston, but decided instead to become even more entrenched in Salem.  It claims that it is “both a new building and a new idea.”  Frankly, we don’t know what that means, but we look forward to finding out.  It would be ironic if one of America’s oldest museums, founded in 1799, has gained some purchase on the future.  We understand that its refurbishment has brought new vigor to Salem itself, which had looked a bit tatty.

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