Every quarter, Museum Revolution hosts a topical salon dinner. At these events, we gather a small but diverse group of museum leaders together to discuss ways to move museums forward. We talk about best practices, how to manage trial balloons for new approaches, and what’s on the horizon.
At our March 3 salon, we explored how museums can connect historical narratives with current events. Our illustrious speakers were Jeffrey Herbst, President of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; Kim Mitchell, Chief Communications Officer of MoMA in New York; and Marc Lapides, VP, Chief Marketing & Development Officer of Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They represented three global cities, three missions, three unique approaches to the topic of the evening. Each brought a great case study to discuss.
But the conversation extended beyond what had been done. We quickly moved to what should be done.
Each museum faces interesting challenges. For the Newseum, focused on the role and importance of the First Amendment, their headlines are headlines, literally. But the First Amendment covers four more topics beyond freedom of the press. The Newseum is challenged with finding a way to bring freedom of assembly, petition, religion and speech into their narrative. How do they embrace the full scope of their mission with the same level of engagement that freedom of the press can be showcased with?
When Jeff started at Newseum, he told the board “What we thought were settled questions in this country have become unsettled. And overseas, countries are tearing themselves apart over religious pluralism. [The focus on religion] is not a change in our mission, it’s the realization of the mission.” To that end, the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute furthers their educational efforts.
For the Adler, they faced the challenge similar institutions face — that science is seen as stale and dusty, confusing and challenging. So how do you breathe life into a topic that drives people away?
They came up with the hashtag #spaceisfreakingawesome. And that became a rallying point for their mission. It worked. It increased engagement and attendance. Why? Because space is, in fact, freaking awesome. And when it’s showcased the right way (thank you, “The Martian” movie and book), the world takes notice. You can start with Galileo but the charm of space and astrophysics is that there is no outer edge so far. We get to keep exploring. For kids, that’s exciting. Make it real, make it hands-on, link the past to the future, and you have kids’ hearts as well as their minds.
One of the things we tend to do when we think about art museums is presume they have it easy. Who doesn’t love art? There is no public battle about whether the preservation and interpretation of art is important. (Yes, there’s argument over individual artists and their work. With modern art, there’s still the “my child could have painted that” mentality in a subset of the population.)
But art needs to be seen as more than just a collection of beautiful paintings and sculptures. Art, good art, does more than just look nice over the sofa. No one ever asked if Picasso’s “Guernica” looked good over the barca lounger.
There’s an entire narrative to art that ties to politics and social issues and self-definition. At MoMA, they are looking to link what they show with the wider world. For example, they’re exploring forced immigration, to help showcase the role art plays in exploring some of the most complex problems that face humanity.
Over the course of the next weeks, we are going to profile how different institutions move their message forward, use social media and exhibit narratives in a new way.
It doesn’t matter if the central theme is art, science, politics, music, news or toy trains. There are narratives that are resonant and relevant and evocative, that pull people in. As museum attendance stalls, as visitor demographics resemble broader society less, now is the time to find ways to communicate the “why” — better, more broadly, and with more engagement.
Any kind of change is hard. Changing the M.O. of the museum world is going to be really challenging. But as Mitchell pointed out that evening, the risks are relatively low. If we get it wrong, we can change again.
This is at the heart of what we at Museum Revolution are dedicating ourselves to. Change … for the better. Viva la revolution!
Interested in learning more about our salons? Contact us here.