Today’s brief musing was prompted by a story I included in our weekly e-newsletter Dispatches from the Future of Museums last week—a video clip of a panel discussion on the Future of the Museum, hosed by the Boston Athenaeum that brought together the heads of the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty Trust, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
[n.b.: the news anchor characterizes this confab as a “convening of the gods.” I guess this shows that museums’ status in society is secure. At least in Boston.]
This brief segment includes comments by Malcolm Rogers:
“It’s nice to have a blockbuster, but to be dependent on them isn’t a good idea. Exhibitions are becoming smaller and more varied, which I think is a good idea…I think we are all trying to invest more in what we call our permanent collections…and not to let an exhibition suck all the energy, or rather the resources, out of the museum.”
A few years ago, writing about “museum eras” (in the futurist sense of the term) I noted that in the last quarter of the 20th century, blockbuster exhibits were the “dominant technology” driving museum attendance. Here is how I described that era:
“Treasures of Tutankhamen” debuted at the National Gallery of Art in November, 1976, eventually drawing 8.25 million visitors as it toured the country. “Tut” spawned a museum-going frenzy—in Riches, Rivals and Radicals, Marjorie Schwarzer writes of people queuing up all night for tickets to the exhibit, camping to get a spot, and fainting in line. The huge impact of “Tut”, cultural and financial, shaped exhibition planning in medium to large museums for decades to come. With time, the downside of reliance on blockbuster exhibits became clear. The pulses of income and visitation were addictive, but not necessarily sustainable, and a return to more conventional short-term, in-house exhibits could look like failure by comparison. Museums that used the income from blockbusters to expand or staff up needed ever larger and more popular exhibits to support swollen operating budgets. Now the blockbuster era is tailing off (if not yet quite moribund) further damaged by the increased costs of shipping and insurance and the logistics of international loans. Blockbuster exhibits are still with us, but they don’t define the landscape the way they once did. During this financial downturn, the trend is for museums to draw on their permanent collections, digging deep into storage to create high-quality, if not quite so glitzy, exhibitions.”
I think we are well into a phase of museum practice in which exhibitions are smaller and more individualistic presentations that draw on a museum’s own collections. While this may well characterize the current era of exhibitions, these smaller exhibitions don’t have the same fertilizing effect on museum finances. For the next era in museum economics, I think we need to look to the Dallas Museum of Art and its experiments with its playful, gamelike and accessible membership model that creates broader, sustained engagement with a more diverse set of supporters, and in which data mining is the source of museum wealth.