The Increasing Interaction Between
The increasing interaction between museums and the entertainment industry has been vastly controversial for the past several decades. The trend has been vilified from multiple angles. Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, argues for limiting museum audience to only those who can truly appreciate art. Hal Foster believes that profit-making has become a goal for museums in the current environment. Although Mr Foster’s argument that ‘box office’ should not be the main orientation for a museum is valid, this essay argues that the cause and effect relationship he establishes is not so obvious.
This essay considers two broad questions: the drivers of the entwined relationship between museums and entertainment industry and its effect on the essence and ‘the aura’ of the museum. The financial pressures, although important, are not a cause of museum commercialisation, but only a by-product of broader social changes. It also critically evaluates the claim that museums’ attempts to move into the entertainment sector and compete in visitor numbers with the likes of cinemas or shopping malls is detrimental to their essence.
I would like to start by defining the main responsibility of the institution towards their visitors as education. This key social function was considered by museums as early as 1759 when British Museum first opened to the public and it is still as relevant today as it was in the XVIII century. The term “education”, however, should not be understood as taught sessions many people are used to, but should instead be defined as responding to the needs of modern society, adjusting methods and approaches to improve communication with the audience, and giving way to and explaining local and global trends and perspectives. To fulfil this goal a museum needs to be able to stay relevant and attract different generations of visitors into its doors. What is the point of a museum if there is no one inside to explore the content and learn? What we need to finally abandon is what was very well defined by Andreas Huyssen as “a regressive notion of culture as museum of past glories”.
We live in a society that is always in a rush. Therefore, people expect to be rewarded for the attention and time they spend in a museum learning. It is not fully correct to argue that the responsibility of learning lies with the viewer. It lies as much with the student as it does with the teacher. Museums have to be able to relate and connect to a person’s experiences, transferring and adapting the content of the exhibition to current social issues and trends. Additionally, it has to be able to draw a person in and catch his interest, admittedly competing with entertainers. A museum must respond to changes in audience expectations and stay relevant, while maintaining its role as an educational body.
This is especially true when it comes to educating children and introducing them to art concepts as early as in primary school. For example, National Gallery asks children to close their eyes and imagine their favourite colour filling them. This allows a child to better understand the use of pigment by the artist. No one contests that some entertainment perspective is necessary in this scenario. Certainly an approach for adults must be different, however the same logic applies. Following this argument, the entertainment factor within the museum experience is not only acceptable, but in many ways helpful.
Stating this, one must not be mistaken equating mass media entertainment with museum experience. The key difference is authenticity. A. Huyssen argues that “mass media have created an unquenchable desire for experiences and events, for authenticity and identity which, however, it is unable to satisfy”. The notion of ‘materiality’ and authenticity of the object makes the experience meaningful for the viewer and different from any other types of entertainment. In this case, the visitors’ mere presence in the institution while being surrounded by the objects leaves an impression that will later alter their views and opinions, maybe even without them realising it.
Critics of this view, such as P. De Montebello, adopt a less visitor-centred view of the museum, but even he acknowledges that to maintain its existence, the museum needs public trust. He defines the main components of public trust as the museum’s integrity, authority and authenticity. This can be achieved, in the author’s view, only if there are no ‘political, commercial, or other such considerations’. Museums’ commercial activities increase such considerations unduly. However the lack of own income increases museums’ dependence on public or private funding, both of which bring their own threats to museums’ integrity. True public trust can only come from the knowledge that the museum is able to make decisions independent of external influences, and the diversification of museum income sources is therefore vital.
Let us consider public funding first. The question whether it provides more flexibility to museums than private sponsorship does not have an obvious answer. Huyssen discusses an issue of museum politicisation highlighting the imposed requirement to improve the image of the city or country in question. But even if the body is truly independent, it is very unlikely to provide the full level of necessary funding in the current economic and fiscal realities. Taking UK as an example, “some 44 museums have closed since 2010, when the Government embarked on widespread cuts in a bid to reduce deficit”, according to the data from Museums Association. Just for England, there was a 31% real-terms decrease in local authority funding from 2010 to 2016. Therefore, museums can no longer rely on public funding the way they used to.
One alternative is to rely on private donations and sponsorships. However, not only are they falling as well, but they can be equally harmful to museums’ independence. Individuals with illicit wealth may be using museum donations to legitimise it, and cash-strained museums with lack of alternative funding may find it hard to refuse. More importantly, private donations can create specific conflicts of interest that may undermine the authority of the museum. Andrea Fraser lists several such conflicts around le fin de siécle, however, taking into account recent controversy around BP a sponsoring several major London museums, we can say with certainty that the issue is just as relevant now.
In the current environment, a path has to be established for museums to slowly become more and more independent by increasing the percentage of self-earned income in their budget. Diversification of income is very important for museums’ independence, as it allows them to avoid worst aspects of each funding source.
Additionally, to be able to fulfil its obligations to visitors, museums need to be able to attract talent. In 2016 45% of museums reported a rise in unpaid staff over the past year. As for any other industry, this is detrimental and can have a long-standing effect of the future of the museum industry as a whole.
Arguing that museums can not be separated from the public, existing as a meeting places for bourgeois and academics, we come to the conclusion that the modern operational model for museums is a direct consequence of their purpose. Modern museums have to fulfil their obligation to society of which they are an integral part. To be able to achieve this goal, museums have to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on outside political or private interests. That does mean that museums need to start operating more like social enterprises and less like government agencies.