There’s been a lot of noise in the past month about whether the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts warrants highly-valued lakefront land in Chicago’s central museum campus or space in the Presidio in San Francisco. When several of my friends engaged in the discussion on Facebook, something struck me. They were proposing alternatives that were just entirely uninformed about what makes a museum thrive.
So my first thought was, Well, at least I can fix part of this conversation. I can weigh in about some of the considerations that go into both quality and viability. My op-ed in the Chicago Tribune to answer those misperceptions also began a two-week extravaganza of me being a spokesperson for a museum with which I have no affiliation. It gave me the ability to be a more neutral party than a PR person would have been allowed; it also meant I could push the conversation in a broader direction, to the value of a museum to a city.
The ensuing public discourse shifted my perspective about what we in the museum world need to do a better job of communicating. And, as you read through them, consider whether your audience needs to hear from you on these things:
Myth 1: Museums Compete for Audiences
A response to my op-ed argued against the new museum by saying, in part, “Attendance at other museums will decline” as a result.
This was the one that caught me most by surprise. Long before this job, I was an avid museum goer, averaging one visit a month at a bare minimum. For people who don’t go to museums with any frequency, their attitude about visits is one and done. So they presume everyone is that way, just as I had presumed that people would know that museum people are, in fact, museums (plural) people.
In this case, the proverbial high tide lifts all boats. Eleven directors of major museums signed an open letter to the city saying that they think the Lucas Museum would bring tremendous value to Chicago. That included all four of the science and technology institutions, who rely on the youth visitors, for whom the Lucas Museum would be a tremendous draw.
They said, in part, “Drawing new tourists to Chicago translates to more visitors also discovering our city’s other attractions and planning return visits. This is the kind of economic boost that we need during these challenging times for our city and our state.”
A subset of this argument is that museum campuses, like the three that we have in Chicago and the one they are developing in Milwaukee, aren’t really beneficial to the public or to the museums themselves. People don’t care if museums are clustered together — they are just as likely to visit scattered institutions.
We can look at the expanding of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to know that museum campuses are effective, improving tourism, cultural offerings and revenue dollars to both the city and the institutions.
Myth 2: Museums Can Go Anywhere and Be Successful
This one didn’t surprise me. The expectation among the general public is that museums are resilient institutions that can thrive in any environment. No matter where you put them, audiences will come.
Much of the work we get at Museum Revolution is to help museums that struggle with pulling in the audience they need because of their geographic location. There simply aren’t enough people in their “pull radius” to keep the financial flow at the level they need to fund significant exhibition improvements and updates, bring in new shows or expand their offerings. Museums can improve their draw, but it means money is spent on that as well as on the exhibits and programs.
The reality is — and most museums know this firsthand — location matters tremendously. The farther one is from the beaten path (or the more an institution becomes a solo destination because little else is in its vicinity), the higher the bar for getting a patron to come.
There were lots of opinions about other land that the Lucas Museum could use in Chicago. One in particular that I had to argue against regularly was the site that had been earmarked for the Olympic Village in the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics. The land is large, vacant, and has a view of the lake. So on paper, it looks great.
In reality, it has numerous drawbacks. The land is viewing distance from the lake, but the barrier is several railroad tracks, a transport parking lot, and then six lanes of highway. Even if you build a bridge between the site and the shoreline, it’s quite a hike with a stroller or small kids. It’s also not reasonably accessible by public transportation from the city side. The Olympic Village worked because it was literally a city within a city, complete with a wall around it.
“Could a museum be built there and do okay?” I got asked that in every single interview. In response, I explained that institutions in isolated environments need to “Disney up” to pull the half-million annual visitors that something like the Lucas Museum could bring in.
I call these “museum islands.” They have to become complete offerings for a minimum four-hour visit. Restaurants, hours of entertainment and massive parking lots go with such institutions. So they can do well, but there’s nominal, if any, lift to the surrounding community. Which leads to point No. 3 …
Myth 3: Museums Are a Tool for Gentrifying a Neighborhood
Museums benefit a city. There is no doubt. The CEO of the American Alliance of Museums wrote a great piece on behalf of the Lucas Museum outlining what we all know: Museums bring in significant revenue and myriad cultural and educational benefits to their host city.
Laura Lott’s piece uses their wealth of research at AAM to show that museums can have long-lasting positive effects. These are great things to know: Quote and use as you make the case for your institution.
However, the heavy lifting of gentrifying a neighborhood isn’t the burden any museum can shoulder alone. For change to take place in a neighborhood, you need to have numerous players. For museum-goers to venture into a neighborhood around the museum, they have to feel safe, there have to be good restaurants and shops to visit, and there have to be a threshold of people on the streets.
Warranted or not, we feel safer in numbers on streets we don’t know. There’s a security in being part of a crowd.
If museums were able to improve or maintain the quality of a neighborhood unilaterally, Brooklyn would have never seen the decline of the 1970s and 1980s around the Brooklyn Museum. That extraordinary institution has watched the rise, fall and resurrection of its neighborhood, from its first construction in 1898 when it was surrounded by farmland.
If any institution would have been able to hold a neighborhood in high value, it would have been this one. But museums alone cannot bring a neighborhood out of poverty.
Most museum staff want to be good community members. They schedule special events to bring people to the neighborhood, they actively work with community partners to bring patrons in, and they are usually very active and vocal proponents of neighborhood and community initiatives. They can even serve as leaders in driving changes.
But they cannot do it alone. To ask a museum to take on that challenge is to set that museum up to fail, both in lifting a community and in thriving as an institution. Economic improvement is a vast community effort.
Myth 4: Curation of Museum Content Cannot Expand the Audience
Did I just hear a collective scream of exasperation across the museum world, or was that just me?
This is the hardest thing for someone like me to hear. It’s like arguing that great writing does not expand the audience of a novel or a movie.
The argument by many people who apparently did not look up the Lucas Museum’s mission was a dismissal of it based on the limited appeal of a “Star Wars” museum. So, a.) it’s not a Star Wars museum, and b.) the narrative of the exhibits matter tremendously, even if it was a Star Wars museum.
I would argue that curation and narrative interpretation matter now more than ever. In the era of Google — when just about any online search can net somewhere between several hundred to several million links — we need to know more than its mission statement to project whether a new museum will be successful. We need to know what story it will tell, how engaging its displays will be, and how nuanced and multidimensional its interpretation and narration. And the Lucas Museum has a compelling narrative approach. (It ought to, given that it’s billed as a museum of “narrative art”.)
Here’s what lingers in my mind at the end of the dog-and-pony show I have been on: First, people need to understand that there’s a lot of “care and feeding” to keep a museum thriving. That means the community being actively involved, more than perhaps they have been.
Perhaps they take us for granted, assume that because we’ve been there for so long, it will always be so. We need to dispel that myth.
Second, the public needs to know that museums change and grow. They are, none of them, the same institutions of our childhood. Our mission may remain the same, but the way we bring that story to life is now much more engaging emotionally and intellectually that it has ever been.
We need to do a better job of blowing our own horn.
So, join us in changing these perceptions. Share your stories of the good and the bad, the risks and the rewards, that you have seen over the years.