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Museums: The Past As Prologue
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

There's A Great Opportunity To Get Back Into The Curiosity Cabinet Business

Chicago's Museum of Science+Industry (“MSI") is running a contest to pick somebody who'll literally live inside the place for a month later this year, in hopes that the winner will help promote it to the outside world.

Visiting a museum is relatively cheap, easy, and offers at least the hint of a redeeming purpose, so it’s no surprise that the MSI isn’t hurting, nor are museums generally: over half of them nationwide reported attendance increases last year, and I’d bet MSI's 2 million-plus annual visitors make it one of America's most popular. But it's never too early to think about new visitors, nor too bold to consider improving on really good numbers. Bill Gates' adage that when companies realize they're in trouble it's already too late to do anything about it probably applies to museums, too.

Though it wasn't surprising news to people who know me best, I've entered the MSI contest. My hat's in the ring because of my personal love of the place -- I practically grew up there in the 1960s -- and my professional belief as a marketer is that it would be fun to be a part of the second renaissance in museums. I've been thinking and writing about it since 2007 (here's a Dim Bulb essay).

From Kircher to Barnum

Before there were museums there were Renaissance curiosity cabinets, or wunderkammer, in which the rich and powerful would literally fill shelves, drawers and tables with cool stuff. Remember, there were no real rules for assessing the veracity of scientific theories back when the best minds believed that blood had a sense of humor and swallows migrated to the moon. Facts were interchangeable with canon and opinion, so the items chosen for display in these cabinets illustrated everything from the immediately obvious to the distantly nuts. Bits of bones attributed to mythical creatures were displayed next to legitimate maps of celestial motion and jars containing various internal organs. Insects and gemstones were arrayed to suggest patterns and connections.

Visitors were expected to examine these collections and both contemplate and discuss their meaning; owners expected to be in the room to participate in the conversations.

More so, many visitors felt empowered to discover answers for themselves, whether visiting a cabinet or fooling around in their own homes (or labs). The Renaissance was an age of incessant questioning, so it wasn't uncommon for individuals to explore a variety of scientific and philosophical avenues. No codified rules meant there were no specialists, not arbiters of knowledge who controlled who was allowed to seek answers. Anyone could ask any question and then presume to be qualified to answer it (with some deft avoidance of Church censors, of course).

Famous scientists dabbled in the occult and inane, like Isaac Newton's part-time involvement in alchemy and biblical numerology. Tinkering businessmen built steam engines and clocks. Curiosity cabinets were a quality of the times: a polymath named Athanasius Kircher lived in Rome in the mid-1600s and wrote about a wide range of topics when he wasn't filling his "Musaeum" with examples of the latest and best discoveries about the history of the planet...placed next to wood chips from Christ’s cross, the dust of unicorn horns, and other exhibits that would have been disqualified from any high school science fair.

This wide-open nuttiness ended sometime during the Industrial Revolution, as both the applications for technology required that theories be made accountable, and a burgeoning middle class sought civic improvement that would mirror and preserve their sense of accomplishment. The newest secrets of science got evermore complicated and detailed, requiring more than curious minds to reveal them. Museums took on a pedagogical role as arbiters and keepers of knowledge.

Collaborative questioning gave way to the authoritative declaration of fact.

The curiosity cabinet business didn't disappear, however, but rather morphed into the pure entertainment of Peale's Museum in Philadelphia, P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York, the various circus freak shows that traveled the country in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and on to today's Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Even the most serious museums sit atop a long history of entertaining people often in lieu of educating them. I think the second renaissance involves reclaiming that function without losing the core values of knowledge and objective fact.

Museums can get back into the wonder business.

From Displays to Experiences

Nothing inside a museum is set in stone, however obviously and sturdily displays might be built. Exhibits are sunk costs but they're not unavoidable endeavors. Museums are empty boxes, essentially, operated by teams of really knowledgeable, creative, and involved people who have bits and pieces of cool stuff at their disposal. What they present should be dependent upon how they want visitors to experience it.

Nobody needs to see another multimedia display. The Internet is already better at doing it, and any potential museum visitor can consume all that online text, video, and audio by pushing a button in their own homes while wearing only their underwear and eating their favorite messy foods. Also, many museum exhibits presume that visitors are interested in whatever it is they're presenting. They're not; worse, I'm not sure I can even claim that topics like the phylogeny of insect wings or the umpteen levels of the Earth’s crust are inherently interesting in the first place. Who hasn't stumbled through a fine arts museum and wondered silently why do I care about any of this?, even though the signage and audio tours wax poetic about its cosmic significance?

No, any museum has to answer one fundamental question for visitors: what can we do that any Internet search or digital creation can't do?

The answer isn't a better display, per se. It's experience. Don't try to make displays interesting as much as create interesting experiences. Don't try to teach as much as prompt curiosity. Don't answer as many questions as you ask. Embrace the qualities of physical space:

  • Participants, Not Consumers -- Part of the genius of the MSI promo is that it recognizes that visitors to museums actually become part of the institutions; it's just that usually their participation has been relegated to inert consumption. I wonder how every visitor could be more substantively involved? Could the attendees at any given time be organized into a community (or communities) that dictate what aspects of the museum are featured, or how content is presented? What might be the outcomes of spending two hours at a museum instead of one (think "leveling-up" in a video game)? How could fellow attendees be enabled and encouraged to interact with one another? How might participation be required to "complete" any display (I remember as a kid turning cranks and pushing buttons to get MSI exhibits to do whatever it was they were intended to do)?
     
  • Shows, Not Exhibits -- No Internet experience can hold a candle to a real-world event or happening, so what if museums expanded their definition of "a show" to encompass the overall visit experience? Go past presentations and imagine actors trolling the halls and staying in character as they interacted with attendees, or treating groups of visitors as characters in some dramatic vignette (imagine trying to convince a Vincent Van Gogh character not to chop off his ear)? Every section of a museum could have things happen at specific times (whether announced or random); every exhibit would become a show of some sort, and these happenings could change over time far more easily than reconfiguring the physical attributes of the exhibits. Visits could be crafted to tie-into current news events, or how about keying into whatever topics are getting covered in, say, the local 4th grade science classes? I bet there are a lot of teachers who would love the chance to organize a field trip based on some thoughtful guidance and support for a happening of some kind.
     
  • Challenges, Not Conclusions -- I think the fundamental opportunity for museums is to figure out to encourage every visitor to ask more questions and want to look for more answers. This could be a mechanism for prompting repeat visits...so could there be aspects of the museum experience that change depending on the interests of visitors? What if attendees were educated first on what science didn't know or couldn't answer, instead of being presented with authoritative conclusions? How about if each section (or event) delivered tasks or steps that visitors could do (think of museum visits as dipping into a FAQ about existence to which anybody could add)? What is a display or show didn't have an obvious conclusion but challenged participants to complete it somehow? Could museum web sites offer community and interactive components that let visitors follow-up on events, add ideas for them, or propose new ones? The idea of museum experiences as editing experience -- helping visitors separate truth from all of the nonsense they can collect on the Internet -- is full of potential, I think.

Museums here in the US and around the world are already doing the things I've noted above, along with far better ideas. They're run by people who are a lot smarter than I am, and the MSI promotion is one example of such creative thinking. This second renaissance is only beginning. I'm curious to see where it goes.

After all, isn't that the point?

Added: 23rd August 2010

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