What the museum industry needs to learn from the entertainment industry
Museums are getting old
Just like a ball tapping faster and closer to the ground as it runs out of energy, the ‘bouncy ball’ that is the Australian museum industry has been dropping closer to the ground for the past 5 years. As IBIS World report in their 2013 Industry analysis of Australian Museums and Art Galleries, there has been an average of only 0.8% growth in the last five years (2009-13).
IBIS World Industry Report R8910 (2013)
The ‘glory days’, if you want to call them that, were in 2003 — with 2.9% annual growth since 2002 and $1.67 Billion in national revenue. We’ve lost around $78 Million in revenue as a sector since then. There has been some recovery though, the downward trend turned around in 2008 — maybe people had some free time to kill when the GFC took out their gig.
However you slice it — the fact is that museums around the world are old, between 150-250 years old. To put that in perspective, some of them are older the ‘the origin of species’. As an industry, I think we’ve reached maturity. Without any innovation or significant change to the value proposition, museums will likely slip into decline in the next few years.
It’s no surprise then, that museums have begun to makes big changes to their strategic plans. Around the world we see the same thing, museums are focusing on ‘audiences’. This makes sense, audiences pay the bills. In most cases, twice; through taxes and then tickets.
However, thinking about audiences is nothing particularly unusual; we’ve been studying what people ‘get out of’ a museum visit and how they engage with museums since the early 20th century. An entire journal has been dedicated to what we call ‘visitor studies’ since the 1980s. What is new, is the increasing centrality of audiences in the planning and production of experiences. As Stephen Weil described in 1994, we have seen a shift in museums being ‘about something’ to being ‘for someone’.
We call this ‘audience-centric’ planning, and there is something else that uses the same definition; entertainment.
Entertainment is audience-centred commercial culture
Alan McKee (2010)
If you just recoiled into your chair at the thought of your beloved ‘arts’ industry acting like the ‘entertainment’ industry — you’re part of the problem. There is a prevailing myth in the arts community that we are ‘at war’ with popular culture. This simply isn't the case. Culture, like all knowledge, does not exist in isolation, it is part of one constantly evolving network of ideas and exchange. If we compete for anything, it is time. The time-intensity of an experience is now the most important criteria by which leisure products are evaluated. However you conceive of this ‘intensity’ (spectacle, or meditative silence) museums now compete with anything else that can be done in “free time”.
In many ways this malignant rumour that ‘art’ is somehow ‘better’ demonstrates the same ‘cultural acquisition of a specific learned response’ that G.R. Stephenson demonstrated in 1967 (he was talking about monkeys — I’ll let you decided how similar arts administrators are). Historian Lawrence Levine traces the emergence of the cultural and adjective hierarchy separating ‘high, legitimate, pure, fine’ art and ‘low, rude, vulgar, popular’ entertainment throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Levine explains that much of this was influenced by writers such as Matthew Arnold, whose work might be best summed up in his goal to “raise the masses through culture” but not just any culture; “the best that has been thought and known in the world”. It’s no surprise that institutions of the time decided what “the best” was.
In the 18th century, cultural participation was very different to what we perceive it to be today. Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh recount in their book ‘Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain’.
“An individual would often attend several theatres in an evening, arranging to see favourite scenes, players, or singers or meeting with people in different halls and boxes… it was not thought obligatory to sit through it all”
As a newspaper commentator recounts attending a theatre in 1838:
“the babel confusion and uproar, the yelling and cursing — swearing and tearing — the friendly interchange of commodities — apples, pignuts, etc., between the tenants of the [gallery] and pit, have become intolerable” (Wilson, 1898)
That sounds like a music festival or conference like South By South-West to me.
It sounds like fun.
Largely in reaction to this kind of intolerable behaviour, arts institutions kickstarted an age of ‘etiquette’ to discipline their audiences. Regardless of how successful administrators were at this, the invention of electric light in this period was really the nail in the coffin for rowdy audience interaction. From what we know of emotional contagion now we can understand how ‘being in the dark’ would impact on the state of mind of an audience member — couple with new rules for ‘appropriate’ arts engagement, we came to accept that sitting quietly in the dark was how ‘art’ was supposed to be done.
The ‘arts’ sought to pacify audiences and sacralise the ‘best’ culture. While the new standards of behaviour were set in the performing arts, they undoubtedly bled over into the administration of museums galleries and libraries. The idea that ‘art’ should have some sort of power over its audiences; that audiences should just ‘shut up and pay attention’, is incompatible with the new ‘audience-centric’ vision for cultural institutions. Entertainment is a mode of cultural production that seeks to be changed by its audience (McKee, 2013). To make entertainment, producers seek input from audiences at various stages of the production of work. It is audience-centric, and it gives audiences want they want. If we cannot break through the dominant ideology that museums should remain exclusively in ‘the arts’, museums as we know them will start to disappear into irrelevance. To become ‘audience-centric’ institutions, it is time to leave ‘art thinking’ behind.
This naturally involves overcoming some fears. Most prominently, we fear that audiences don’t really know anything about our collections and that unless we are committed to “challenging” them, we doom ourselves to produce uncritical popularist rubbish. However, though this kind of direct intervention by research may indeed change the product, producers of entertainment are still beholden to produce quality work. There are plenty of examples of works made in ‘entertainment mode’ that do not succeed because they are deemed to be ‘crap’. Lets leave aside the complication that something might be SO CRAP that it becomes awesome again.
I’ve had it with these motherf*#king critics!
McKee has also pointed out that whenever research is done into popular culture consumption, it repeatedly shows “without exception” that these decisions do involve discrimination (2007, p,6).
The ivory tower effect is widespread, particularly in academia and culture. As institutions we seem to get around believing that we have been given the authority to conclusively determine the value and meaning of ‘anything we touch’— but the 18th century power structure that established and verified the authority of institution is breaking down, not least because of the emergence of middle-class purchasing power, but again accelerated by technology (this time, the light-bulb is a social networking website).
On the other side of the coin — the idea that mainstream entertainment undermines the ability of ‘the masses’ to think critically about the world is pervasive in the annals of sociology and culture studies — unfortunately, as we have already established, it is patently false. This idea is famously captured in the thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer who said of the entertainment industry that “sustained thought is out of the question” and that “no scope is left for imagination”.
Even if — in the case of watching an action movie, for example — we find that the audience do not experience ‘sustained thought’ while engaging with the movie, the mere existence of the cultural category of fan fiction disproves the concept that ‘no scope was left for imagination’ and that sustained thought (post hoc) was out of the question.
As Suzanne Oberhardt has said, what Adorno and Horkheimer got wrong was to assume “culture (is) the active agent that acts upon the subject” when indeed the subject might “actively engage with the culture”.
they look like such cool dudes, too
ars gratis artis* (art for arts sake)
*refered to from here on in as ‘general wankery’ — seems to take a perverted sense of pride in how ‘difficult’ things must be to understand, and the more obscure and veiled in multi-syllabic viscerally ontological interpretation work is, the better it must be, for sure- sustained thought is required just to understand the fucking label.
Similarly, what Arnold and the 19th century administrators got wrong was to classify vulgarity as bad.
1570s, “the common people,” from Middle French vulgarité and directly from Late Latin vulgaritas “the multitude,” from vulgaris (see vulgar). Meaning “coarseness, crudeness” is recorded from 1774. (http://www.etymonline.com/)
Vulgarity is an important element of entertainment.
“Good entertainment is vulgar. It has a story. Seriality is valued, as is adaptation. Good entertainment has a happy ending. It is interactive, fast, loud and spectacular. It provokes a strong emotional response in the consumer. Good entertainment is fun.”(Alan McKee, 2012)
Speaking in plain language allows for social interpretation to take place. It aids in understanding and the development of meaning. Importantly, it encourages conversation. The use of slang is not a marker of corruption, it is a sign of currency. The kind of analysis that The Footy Show provides audiences of sport with, facilitates a much richer experience of the ‘text’ that is a Grand Final. Meanwhile, the idea of a ‘pre-exhibition analysis’ in which interesting back stories, facts, animated statistics and characters are introduced for audiences, is completely foreign to most Museums. The best we can do is an audio-guide.
For most people, the lack of opportunity to socially interpret the arts experience has led ‘Art’ has become something of a ‘boggart’ — a shape-shifting non-being that takes on the form of your worst nightmare. The importance of social meaning making is only reinforced by observing the behaviour of those ‘in the know’ about art, go to any opening night you like, and you will see those who seem to thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to use big words in public, because for them, it is their common language.
Let me tell you — there is plenty of scope left for imagination.
Platforms like Google’s Cultural Institute are demolishing what remains of practical museum-collection sovereignty, allowing users from any computer in the world access to any collection, with full meta-data, and curatorial tools. Furthermore, it is likely that 3D printing will soon achieve resolutions and costs good enough to reproduce artefacts as though they were originals, anywhere in the world.
Even if ‘the real will always appeal’ Hans Ulrich Obrist (Curator of the Serpentine Gallery, London) has described the possibility that our “prioritisation of material objects from the past may not be enough to convey functional meaning to tomorrow’s generations.” This may see the concept of ‘exhibit’ and ‘curator’ become relics themselves, giving way to the idea of ‘collection as database’, something to be programed, and not exclusively in the virtual sense. As robotics as urban informatics movements become more mainstream, we may find more value in the ability to experience a museum as a sort of ‘walk-in vending machine’ of culture.
I don’t anything I've said is far-fetched. But if you need convincing— this museum is already printing its VISITORS
To retain any currency or creative agency in the future, it is our imperative to learn from the entertainment industry. We must learn to apply the concepts of serialised stories, complete with online / offline adaptations. We must encourage fast, loud, fun, social, spectacular, interactive, emotionally intense experiences.
Importantly, we should be getting off our high horse, we should stop using ‘art-wank’ (to borrow MONA’s terminology) to describe the phenomenology and ontology of contemporary trans-mediated experiences and allow the meaning of our collections to be socially made.
This will be challenging, but we’ve been OK with ‘challenging’ our audiences for the past however-many years now… maybe we should stop taking ourselves so seriously.
Here comes the bibliography / references for those of you who like to chase the dragon. However — if you’re a regular person and you got something out of this, please roll down to the bottom and hit ‘recommend’
Not all materials cited below are directly referenced in text
Allday, A. (2013). IBISWorld Industry Report R8910. Art Galleries and Museums in Australia
Arnold, M. (1869) Culture and anarchy: Essay Thoemmes P.
Conner, L. (2013). Audience engagement and the role of arts talk in the digital era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Chan, T.W. (2006). Social status and cultural consumption. Cambridge University Press.
Horkheimer, M., Adorno, T.W. (1972). Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.
McKee, Alan. (2012). Beautiful Things in Popular Culture. Blackwell Publishing
McKee, Alan. (2012). The aesthetic system of entertainment. In McKee, A., Collis, C. & Hamley, B. (2012). Entertainment industries: entertainment as a cultural system, Routledge, London.
McKee, Alan (2013). The power of art, the power of entertainment. Media, culture & society , 35 (6), p. 759.
Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh (2004).Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Ashgate Publishing), 80.
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys. in Starek, D., Schneider, R., And Kuhn, H. J. (Eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart Fischer, Pp. 279-28
Oberhardt, S. (2001) Frames within frames: the art museum as cultural artifact, Peter Lang, New York.
Weil, S. E. (1999). From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the american museum. Daedalus, 128(3), 229-258. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/210571283?accountid=13380
Wilson, Erasmus (1898). Standard History of Pittsburgh. Chicago: H.R. Cornell & Co.
Tepper, Steven J (2012). Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life .
Getting off your high-horse was originally published in The Muse[um…] on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.