Next thing you know they will be paying people hundreds of thousands, no Millions of dollars to play sports! What is this world coming to...
Apples to oranges. But that's a bag of worms best left unopened.
The current issue of The Economist is covering China's museum building boom. As part of their coverage, they've written an article on the phenomenal year museums had in 2012. Per the American Alliance of Museums, US-based museums received ~850-million visitors in 2012! That's more than every sporting event and theme park combined.
If you have an account, you can check out the full article here. For everybody else, it's hidden behind a paywall. I'll attempt to replicate it here.
---- Temples of Delight
MUSEUMS USED TO stand for something old, dusty, boring and barely relevant to real life. Those kinds of places still exist, but there are far fewer of them, and the more successful ones have changed out of all recognition. The range they cover has broadened spectacularly and now goes well beyond traditional subjects such as art and artefacts, science and history (for a sample of oddball specialities, see chart). One of the biggest draws is contemporary art.
To be sure, museums remain showcases for collections and repositories of scholarship, but they have also become pits of popular debate and places where children go for sleepovers (pictured, above, at the British Museum). They are no longer places where people look on in awe but where they learn and argue, as they would at universities or art schools. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Britain’s Tate galleries, describes the museum as “a forum as much as a treasure box”
The statistics suggest that these new-look museums are doing something right. Globally, numbers have burgeoned from around 23,000 two decades ago to at least 55,000 now. In 2012 American museums received 850m visitors, says the American Alliance of Museums. That is more than all the big-league sporting events and theme parks combined. In England over half the adult population visited a museum or gallery in the past year, the highest share since the government began collecting such statistics in 2005. In Sweden three out of four adults go to a museum at least once a year (though not all Europeans are equally keen). The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most popular museum, had 10m visitors last year, 1m more than in 2011. China will soon have 4,000 museums—still only a quarter the number in America, but it is racing to catch up.
A world of choices
On the face of it, that success seems surprising. People now have more choices than ever before in how to spend their leisure. Many travel to see the world, but mostly the world comes to them, often via television and the internet, conveniently delivered to their laptops or smartphones. So why would they want to traipse round museums if most of the stuff they can see there is available at the click of a mouse?
Some of the new enthusiasm for museums is explained by changes in demand. In the rich world, and in some developing countries too, the share of people who are going on to higher education has risen spectacularly in recent decades. Surveys show that better-educated folk are a lot more likely to be museum-goers. They want to see for themselves where they fit in the wider world and look to museums for guidance, which is why so many of these places have been transformed from “restrained containers” to “exuberant companions”, as Victoria Newhouse writes in her book, “Towards a New Museum”.
In developed countries museums are being championed by a wide variety of interest groups: city fathers who see iconic buildings and great collections as a tourist draw; urban planners who regard museums as a magic wand to bring blighted city areas back to life; media that like to hype blockbuster exhibitions; and rich people who want to put their wealth to work in the service of philanthropy (“a way for the rich to launder their souls”, as one director put it). For young people they are a source of something authentic and intriguing when their electronic entertainments start to pall.
In the more affluent parts of the developing world, too, museum-building has flourished, driven mainly by governments that want their countries to be regarded as culturally sophisticated (though wealthy private individuals are also playing a part). They see museums as symbols of confidence, sources of public education and places in which a young country can present a national narrative. Visitor numbers in such countries are also rising fast, boosted by a growing middle class. Some hope to use cultural offerings to attract many more foreign tourists. In Qatar and Abu Dhabi, for instance, a clutch of new museums under construction is meant to turn the Gulf into a destination for visitors from Europe, Russia and South Asia. Chinese museums received more than 500m visits last year, 100m more than in 2009.
A time for worship
Less than a century ago Benjamin Ives Gilman, who served as secretary of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for over 30 years, published a personal manifesto, “Museum Ideals: of Purpose and Method”, in which he urged curators to treat museums as having a holy purpose. Collections should be contemplated for their aesthetic qualities alone, he argued, with no need for narrative, context or explanation. The best place to do that was in the rarefied surroundings of a museum. “A museum of art”, he wrote, “is in essence a temple.”
The demolition of the temple started with the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1977. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers turned the museum’s architecture inside out, literally and metaphorically. They put the utilitarian air shafts and escalators on the outside of the building and painted them in bright primary colours instead of hiding them away. Inside, visitors were encouraged to move from the permanent collection to the library and back again, and in and out of the special exhibitions. As if to emphasise that this museum was about having fun as much as about displaying art, jugglers and men on stilts entertained visitors all over the museum plaza in the fashionable Marais district. Ever since, cities have been vying to put up increasingly adventurous museum buildings and entire quarters to stake their claim as cultural centres (see article).
Not all of what Gilman stood for has been swept away. When the British Museum (BM) opened in 1759, it proclaimed itself as the world’s first independent national museum “for all studious and curious persons, both native and foreign-born”. That remains its aim. But whereas in Gilman’s day curators reigned supreme, now they have to enchant visitors rather than lecture them. Museums offer narratives in their exhibitions, provide a context for objects by linking them to other people and other places, work with digital experts to enable visitors to participate as well as watch and listen, and create innovative public programmes to bring in the young and the inexperienced.
According to Kenneth Hudson, a British museum trendspotter and author of “Museums of Influence”, “the most fundamental change that has affected museums is the now almost universal conviction that they exist in order to serve the public.” Some people may turn up their noses, fearing that some of what goes on in museums these days is getting too close to being mere entertainment. But modern visitors like being entertained, and are likely to drift away unless museums can connect with them both intellectually and emotionally.
The money for all this comes from a variety of sources. Some institutions were privately founded and continue to be privately funded, others are entirely state-financed. In recent years public funding throughout the developed world has been squeezed, so museums have had to become more adept at raising money themselves, and the barriers between the two traditional funding models have become more fluid. Most institutions in Europe, America and Australia now live on a mix of public, corporate and individual support. Even in Germany, where culture has traditionally been seen as the responsibility of the state, the climate is getting harsher. The main museums in Berlin are now expected to raise at least 8.5% of their annual operating budget in ticket sales and sponsorship.
One handy source of income is to make loans of artworks to galleries abroad. Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie has been able to raise €1m ($1.3m) by lending its two Vermeers to museums in Japan. The Picasso Museum in Paris raised €30m of the €50m it needed for its current makeover from lending works to museums abroad. Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, says he has a list as long as his arm of foreign museums clamouring to borrow some of his most famous paintings.
A big institution such as the BM costs about £100m ($160m) a year to run, of which 40% goes on staff alone. Every pound from the Treasury is more than matched by a pound the museum raises itself. Admission charges for public museums in Britain were scrapped by a Labour government in 2001, though museums mostly ask for voluntary donations. But the BM has also made great efforts to strengthen its marketing and fund-raising and to sell its expertise. One way of doing that is to provide consultancy services to new foreign museums; a contract with the Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, which will open in 2016, is thought to be earning the BM as much as £10m a year.
Museums in America have traditionally been supported by rich individuals offering private endowments, but even there museums enjoy some state largesse in the form of tax breaks for donors and lenders, as well as rules favouring not-for-profit organisations (see main chart above for a breakdown of America’s museum finance). Other than in New York and Chicago, entrance fees as a source of income are becoming increasingly insignificant. When at the Dallas Museum of Art they shrank to just 2% of annual income, the trustees approved the launch of a radical new scheme: visitors sign up to a membership programme known as DMA Friends that gives them free admission if they provide their names, e-mail addresses and zip codes. Since January 35,000 people have joined, and they are signing up at a rate of 800 a week. The personal information they provide is overlaid with details from the census, allowing the museum to work out who their visitors are and exactly where they come from. Philanthropists love the scheme because it makes the use of their money more transparent.
Not all museums are doing equally well. Landmarks such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the BM, the Louvre and the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam steam on at full capacity. Small local museums also enjoy strong support from their communities. But historic houses and history museums are less popular than they used to be, and museums that cater for young visitors now have to compete with an array of other attractions.
And all museums, whether privately financed or funded by the state, are affected by the economic cycle. In Spain, for example, public funding has been slashed, so the many new museums that have been built in the past two decades are now struggling to cover their running costs. And in cities whose economic fortunes have declined, museums suffer too. Detroit has $18 billion-worth of debt, and on December 3rd was granted protection from its creditors. One proposal being considered for raising money is that it sell its fine collection of paintings by Bruegel the Elder, Van Gogh and Matisse, valued at $1 billion a decade ago.
Even so, new museums are still being opened every day, and in the West most of them are for contemporary art, because that seems to be the biggest draw just now.
Thanks for posting the article -- I confess to only picking up the Economist on the plane but I know I should be a regular reader.
I took the family to the Detroit Institute of Art over Thanksgiving and the visit substantiates some of what was mentioned in the article: (1) several important paintings were out on loan (John Sloan's McSorley's Bar for one) and (2) there was a traveling exhibit on animation that is a prime offender (for the most part) of the attraction geared for entertainment rather than education -- but the exhibit was packed (much more so than the permanent galleries).
I think the article could have done a better job of pointing out failures of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come school of thought -- other than the couple of throw-away sentences at the end. Spain is not the only place where there are struggling museums. I can think of at least one high profile museum failure and several others that are struggling. I agree historic houses are struggling too. I note that Mount Vernon for one has just opened a big new visitors center and is trying to catch the wave of being more than just a dusty walk-though of a dusty old building attaction.
Even while making the distinction, I also think the article doesn't clearly make the analytical breakdown between art and other types of museums. To me, these are two totally different animals -- even when they have to survive under the same roof. Let's be honest, a lot of art museums (the Met included -- for some), are really just glorified watering holes.
Let's be honest, a lot of art museums (the Met included -- for some), are really just glorified watering holes.
But at the same time does it really matter? Individuals will seek out like-minded souls in all matter of places and we could substitute any number of places for museums. The local golf course, for example, comes to mind.
Those people, however, know exactly why they're at the museum. They at least have honesty on their side compared to those turistas who feel guilted into visiting museums they ordinarily wouldn't visit.
Originally Posted by Robert Reid
In a lot of I’ve been to Paris three times and never once put a foot inside the Louvre. I skipped the Colosseum in Rome and gave only 10 minutes to the Hermitage during the entire five weeks I spent in St. Petersburg.
I’m sorry if this is disappointing. But I’m not sorry at all.
Too often, we travelers let good old fashioned guilt seep into the decision-making process when we’re building our itineraries. Rather than following our inherent interests (canoes, Rococo, hockey), we let the expectations of friends and family–or what we’ve read in some magazine–serve as some proxy “travel conscience,” guiding us toward things we should or shouldn’t see., yes, they are.
In my experience, a lot of the museum's success with tourists is twofold: 1.) It eats up a lot of time on the itinerary and is subsequently 'cheap' when considering increasingly unfavorable exchange rates and 2.) they speak English more often than not*. You're spared the often humiliating attempts at trying to make yourself understood.
* - This is only true for native English speakers traveling abroad. Good luck, for example, in trying to find a French speaking agent/proctor/whatever at any American museum.
Originally Posted by Robert Reid
But I wonder how museums will fare as people travel more, and farther, looking to take a deeper dive into the places they visit? Will museums survive in an era where it’s less about seeing things than doing things? You know, that whole “travel like a local” thing.
I’ve visited well over a hundred museums, and usually find the experience overly passive. We dutifully file past old tunics or jawbones sealed behind glass, read a few words on panels, watch looping videos on a screen in the corner.
The above quote is the most important takeaway of the article in my opinion, and ties directly back into the original question: What is a museum?
Unlike the article's author, I've set foot in the Louvre. If I add up all the time spent within its confines, it might total a week's worth of my life. Probably less, but not by much. Why I've even slid down the railing from the Richelieu Wing to under I.M. Pei's pyramid! With no Jean Seberg or Eva Green accompanying me, running through the galleries didn't seem appealing.
I digress though. There are still aspects of the Louvre's massive collection that I enjoy seeing in person -- certain paintings, statuary, and their Napoleonic Era collection -- but after a couple of hours I'm finished. It's not my cup of tea.
That said, I continue to spend quite a bit of time at the National Museum of Natural History because of my interest in the natural sciences, but even more time has been spent at the Parc Zoologique in order to see a lot of those behaviors/habits/whatever in practice. Through that association I've even found one of my favorite stores in the world.
The New York Times touches on the sea change in the demographics of board members and charitable giving in the Arts.
Originally Posted by The New York Times
While charitable giving in the United States has remained stable for the last 40 years, there is reason for concern. Boomers today control 70 percent of the nation’s disposable income, according to data compiled by the American Alliance of Museums. Millennials don’t yet have nearly as much cash on hand. And those who do, the alliance found, are increasingly drawn to social, rather than artistic, causes.
Now, as wealth becomes more concentrated, tax laws change and a younger generation develops new philanthropic priorities, museums — like other nonprofit organizations — are confronting what, if unaddressed, could become an existential crisis.
“The generational shift is something a lot of museums are talking about,” said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “The traditional donors are either dying, stepping back or turning it over to their children or grandchildren.”
Generational change is always occurring as new blood takes the place of the old. But as the boomers’ children take over, there is concern among administrators and trustees that millennials are not poised to meet the financial and leadership demands of increasingly complex — and expensive — museums.
“We’re not just talking about replacing one generation with another generation,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “We’re talking about a new generation that behaves so differently than the last one.”
An acquaintance of mine has written an interesting article on the current state of our Natural History museums. If you're wondering, it's not good news.
Originally Posted by Richard Conniff
Worse, this rumored dustiness reinforces the widespread notion that natural history museums are about the past — just a place to display bugs and brontosaurs. Visitors may go there to be entertained, or even awe-struck, but they are often completely unaware that curators behind the scenes are conducting research into climate change, species extinction and other pressing concerns of our day. That lack of awareness is one reason these museums are now routinely being pushed to the brink. Even the National Science Foundation, long a stalwart of federal support for these museums, announced this month that it was suspending funding for natural history collections as it conducts a yearlong budget review.
The article Mr. Conniff links to from Nature is well worth reading as well.
Originally Posted by Christopher Kemp
The collections are overseen by a dwindling corps of managers and curators — mainly taxonomists who describe species, and systematists who study the relationship between organisms. The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, had 39 curators in 2001. Today, there are just 21. At present, there is no curator of fishes — an enormously diverse class of animal. Neither The Field Museum nor the AMNH — which hold two of the largest collections in the world — has a lepidopterist on staff, even though both collections contain hundreds of thousands of butterfly and moth specimens. Similarly, the National Museum of Natural History has seen a steady drop in the number of curators — from a high of 122 in 1993 to a low of 81 last year.
The Beeb's Radio Four has an interesting short series on air (download now, natch) called The Museum of Lost Objects. Focusing on ten different artifacts/sites/whatever destroyed since the Islamic State came to power - but not necessarily destroyed by them-- in Syria and Iraq. The looting and destruction of the region's cultural patrimony has been proceeding in earnest since the United States' invasion, but needs to be understood that this isn't a new phenomenon.
Few of the excesses of the group that calls itself Islamic State have transfixed the outside world as much as its destruction of Palmyra, the ancient desert oasis city in central Syria. Palmyra's remarkable 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel was demolished in August 2015.
It looked in many ways like a great Greek temple. Standing in the middle of a walled sanctuary, the rectangular structure had once been ringed by towering 15m-high columns - Corinthian columns, topped by carvings of acanthus leaves. Some of these still stood, two millennia later, before IS blasted the temple to bits.
There were differences from the familiar Greek design, though. The roof had been decorated with stone triangles, or merlons, that ran along its edges like rows of giant, pointy teeth. And the entrance wasn't quite where you might have expected it to be. In most classical temples the door is on the short side of the rectangle and leads to a single altar, but in Palmyra the main entrance was on the long side.
You can find the full site here. Or you can download the individual podcasts if you're so inclined.
They aren't that long (about fifteen minutes apiece), but they can be quite powerful. Listening to Zenobia al-Asaad describe her father's refusal to leave Palymra and his subsequent execution by ISIL is devastating.
Once you've given a few of the episodes a listen, there is a series of in-depth and fully illustrated articles for each of the artifacts.