Museums’ sense of self-importance is legendary, but the cloak of sophistication they wear obscures the fact that most can barely express their public value.
Robin Pogrebin’s excellent article from last week’s New York Times, “In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not be Better,” (11 December 2009) exposes the new building construction trend for what it is: self-aggrandizement. Embracing superficiality and spectacle to compete for visitors and donations has built the wrong kind of identity. Costly new building construction and popular blockbuster exhibitions are the primary products of an entertainment-focused imagination. Museums need something other than chutzpah. If they are in fact valued public institutions worthy of support, they should be taking steps to put themselves at the centre of a vital public conversation about our world; should be trying to challenge audience thinking beyond their walls, sustain intellectual interests, establish communities that want to stay connected and want to support their work. They must transcend their physical spaces and communicate their unique stories to a broader audience. Sustainable museum brands will be the by-product of proprietary knowledge, not new buildings, not borrowed content. Until they come to terms with this, museums will continue losing ground against society’s multiple (and increasing) distractions.
And how ironic that this article appeared on the day Thomas Hoving, the man who “made the mummies dance” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died.
I’ve written about this issue before: