Happy New Year!: Physician, Heal Thyself

By James G. Leventhal

Panel on Innovation at WMA09 San Diego: Lori Fogarty, Director, Oakland Museum of California; Douglas Fogle, Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Hammer; Ted Russell, Senior Program Officer for the Arts, James Irvine Foundation; and Angelina Russo, Associate Professor, Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

Please join for an amble through some issues of interest...  (The last time I did this here it was about technology issues and museums.  This time it is about a couple of things that have arisen about the state of museums generally.)

A very important conversation just happened here on the radio this week, and we want to be sure to help further both the broadcast and the on-going, necessary exchange through westmuse.

Scott Shafer hosted a dialogue on KQED's Forum entitled Museums in Recession. KQED notes:

The number of adults attending arts and cultural events in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level since 1982, when the National Endowment for the Arts began tracking it. While there is some good news - California ranked near the top among states for art museum attendance - the study found the decline to be especially prominent among Latinos. We discuss the role of museums in a changing demographic.

Those whom KQED's Forum engaged included:

To listen now click here.

These are scary times, friends.  The Claremont Museum of Art is closing. "Two and a half years after bursting into life in a historic, former fruit packing plant, the Claremont Museum of Art is on death’s door," writes Suzanne Muchnic on the LA Times blog Culture Monster.

In Fresno, CA an "..exhibitor pulled 65 etchings by Marc Chagall over the weekend fearing the Metropolitan Museum is about to shut for good...[being]  more afraid that he'd be unable to retrieve the art if the faltering museum padlocks its doors."

On the other hand:

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs completed its run at the Dallas Museum of Art as the most popular exhibition in the Museum’s history, drawing in 664,000 ticketholders since its October 2008 opening. Additionally, the Museum reached a historic high in attendance, welcoming for the first time more than one million visitors to date in the 2009 fiscal year.  The King Tut exhibition, which was accompanied by more than 500 special programs, brought in thousands of first-time visitors from throughout the region and nearly 110,000 students to experience the Museum and its encyclopedic collections.

And with King Tut's present reign at the de Young in San Fransisco, the museum is now reported to be one of the few museums in the country that is able to remain in-the-black based on admissions income, a phenomenal even unheard-of accomplishment for anyone who has tracked a museum's bottom line.

One of our nation's finest museum leaders Ron Chew had some thoughts posted this week for the Center for the Future of Museums blog:

I’ve been thinking about what I learned in China, and the little exchange with the tour guide and the driver. Sad to say, they were right. The most memorable and engaging places were not the museums – the air-conditioned enclosures with objects protected behind glass and neat little labels – but the living spaces: restored temples, rustic gardens, village courtyards, public squares, orphanages, and outdoor and indoor markets. These well-trafficked spaces – where daily life is lived and lots of things just sort of happen – were the places where I learned the most and found the greatest inspiration.

What do we do as museum professionals, when industry thought leaders like Ron Chew fundamentally question what museums contribute to a tourist's understanding of another culture?  Having been to China recently, I do not really agree with Chew's assessment of museums there.

The Forbidden City may be one of the world's largest and finest museums.  As Chew concedes "In Beijing, the Forbidden Palace is called a museum."  Then he questions it after his visit, "Was all of that a museum?"

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an, China -- talk about inspiring awe and wonder.

But what greater re-purposed, repossessed, once-limited access stately collection has been so transformative?  Isn't that one of the fundamental definitions of a type of  museum à la the Louvre?  And isn't the Eastern reverence for the object something to which museums should aspire?

In fact, I was quite struck by how much the word "museum" was adopted in China, perhaps or, um, of course to attract tourism.  But is that bad for our industry?  Our cultures?  Our globe-spanning societies?  One of the world's great mind-boggling experiences is to visit the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Xian.

And even the traditional "air-conditioned enclosure" model-type museum in Xian -- the Shanxi History Museum -- as desolate, large and new-though-musty as it was...was a really important time-space experience for me and my wife in our understanding and appreciation of our shared experience in China, our shared humanity.

Now, I might imagine Ron's piece for the Center for the Future of Museums was mainly anecdotal.  He might generally agree with me in more direct dialogue.  I also find it interesting that Chew may have been so successful in his life's work to help the museum field to fathom better the transcendent power of museums.  I see the term "museum" as a meaningful catchall that invites and inspires.  He may still find the word limiting, or more something to excel beyond.

Where are we?  Is a retrenchment necessary?  Are we diluted by audience-focused missions?  Or not diverse and relevant enough?!

As part of a dialogue on Museums 3.0 called Museum as Soup Kitchen Elaine Heumann Gurian asks for feedback as she posits, "It is clear to me that museums could be much more helpful and timely by changing hours, job retraining, health care information and all manner of social service."

And one of America's great chroniclers of this nation's history of museum's Marjorie Schwarzer responds in a comment that captures an inspired and spontaneous spirit:

HI Elaine, I am in the middle of writing an article for Museum News on how museums responded in the 1930s (before the WPA) and have spent two days digging through archives from 1929 - 1934. The results are fascinating! As expected, museums were slow to react in the 1930s, since no one really knew what was going on or how deep the impact would be. We have the gift of history, archives and insight to help guide us and that's a lot! But here are some things that they did do that are noteworthy: a) they looked at new technologies (in this case, it was radio broadcasts!); b) they re-focussed their collecting on American-made items; c) there was a huge effort to document and archive; c) they began to advocate for employee benefits (in those days, that meant pensions for retiring folks); d) they began to develop and evaluate games (!!); e) there was an enormous push toward educational activities and adult education -- including free re-training for "unemployeed persons". And this was all before the WPA was enacted and occured organically.

To read Scharwzer's fascinating, above-referenced article Bringing it to the People/Depression in its published state at the AAM archive on line click here.

As we explore these questions collectively and continue to face international financial and political disruptions, 2010 promises to be a big year for museums.

For one thing, all eyes are and will be on the Oakland Museum of California:

In May 2010, the Museum will welcome back visitors and introduce the reconfigured History and Art Galleries. The new galleries will include digital and interactive features to encourage visitors to experience California’s many stories and voices, and add their own. Much of the signage and exhibit copy will be in Spanish and Chinese, as well as English. Californians can expect to see their history and culture represented throughout the Museum.

There's lost of upside here, people.  Despite the bad news, we' re hanging strong in fact.  In the KQED Forum discussion Elizabeth Merrit says,  "One of the great things about America is that anyone can start a museum, and often does..."  Thanks, Dan Spock, for pointing out to me that The Big House, The Allman Brothers Band Museum finally just opened in Macon, GA.

Cultural Transcendence at the Wing Luke

The bottom line is that museums can make a difference.  Ron Chew taught us with his brain seeds, his Wing Luke Asian Museum, an industry standard bearer for community-driven, identity-based institutions.

And it is this very, present exploration being led by those within the field that proves the ability and perhaps the need for museums to continue to innovate in meaningful ways.

Join the conversation!  Give your feedback here.  And be a part of WMA in Portland 2010 for #wmaportland75.  Session proposals are being accepted now on-line.

If you would like to participate by submitting a session proposal, please first read the guidelines here; then download the submission form,; fill it out, and email it to the Program Committee co-Chairs, Jacqueline Cabrera and Merritt Price at wmaportland2010@gmail.com by January 15, 2010.


If you prefer to submit your session via an online form, please CLICK HERE!




I am so heartened to hear about your experiences in Europe, Marjorie! For years I've been experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, what I really love about the museum experience is that sense of wonder that only comes from a one-on-one personal meeting with a truly magnificent (for whatever reason) object. I like the old, quiet, dusty halls, the contemplative and not physically interactive exhibits and spaces.

But on the other hand, everything I hear/read/am told/see is that this is not what our audiences want and to expect them to want these kinds of experiences is elitist.

*shrug* Okay, so most of the world doesn't like what I like about museums. I'm willing to try to make museums fit their mold instead of mine in hopes that museums will remain relevant and useful and in existence.

But I am really glad to hear that I am *not* the only one out there who values the impact of The Object.

On the other hand, as a collections professional I know just how much time, money and space it takes to properly care for and preserve a collection. Non-collecting institutions have it easy in that regard! So I wonder if there will come a day when technology is sufficiently advanced that museums can collect all the pertinent data about an object without necessarily having to collect the object itself? Or even if they do have the physical object, perhaps it will be kept off physical display but instead will be accessible through technological means, except perhaps to researchers thereby cutting down on the wear-and-tear of display? Meanwhile what will be exhibited in the public spaces will either be hands-on interactive exhibits a la science centers and children's museums, or else traveling exhibitions designed to maximize attendance (ie blockbusters).

The way I see it, collecting museums have two problems to deal with in terms of their collections: the first is the cost in terms of resources as I mentioned above. Curating information rather than objects would reduce costs. The second problem is that many collections objects never see the light of day. There are a lot of reasons for this fact, but there does seem to be a strong sense that what resides in one's own collection does not have the same value/merit/impact/aesthetics/relevance/cultural significance/cachet/whatever that other collections have--collections often found in traveling exhibitions.

Ideally, museums would find a way to bring relevance to those languishing collections--or recognize that they do not fit their mission and deaccession them to make room in storage and the budget for objects that do--but it seems like it is perhaps easier (and sometimes cheaper) to just bring in an outside exhibit. It could be that the exhibit hall part of the museum funds the research and collections part of the museum.

I don't think these are really very new ideas, other than the possible elimination of the object in favor of just its information.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post to start the new year. It's true, it's been a turbulent time. But I'll add another link to support the "it's not all bad" argument.

The recent NEA report generated a lot of concern about the long-term outlook for arts and culture audience trends. But in other research, it appears that the recession is prompting Americans to refocus on experiences over stuff -- a positive trend from many perspectives. http://bit.ly/68lZBF

I'm helping plan the February Cultural Connections program, which is an opportunity to continue this discussion... our topic will explore aspects of the recession, its effects on museums, and how we're navigating its challenges. If you have suggestions or requests for the program -- potential speakers, venues, questions for discussion, lessons you'd like to share -- let me know.

Thanks James for pushing the positive forward! Allyson, I'm intrigued, as always, to hear more of your thoughts about how we need to be thinking about how we harness our collections. Their power remains. Two examples from my trip last week to Europe: a) at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Koln, Germany a room with a single painting -- Van Gogh's painting of his shoes -- and, intermixed, a wall, audio and comment books of reactions that "famous" scholars and "regular" folk have had to this iconic painting. Room was filled with people--excitedly talking and focussing on a single object; b) at the archeologico museum in Marsala, Italy, a room from whose ceiling hung the remains of a Phoenician warship dredged from the Sea a few years ago and partially restored. Single breathtaking object = many stories.

Folks: A propos to this interesting discussion is the ICOMOS Ename Charter ratified in Montreal in 2008. It lays out principles for site interpretation vis-a-vis cultural tourism and local communities. Very interesting, esp. given James' analysis of his experience in China as a contrast to Ron Chew's.


Thanks for this post James - always food for thought.

The situation in Australia is not so grave, although our different government funding structure with a three-tier system of government don't necessarily help. Some states are more in tune with their arts/cultural sectors and more willing to provide funding.

In Sydney at the moment it is our long summer break and we are finding our museum buzzing with happy and satisfied visitors - tourists and families alike (http://australianmuseum.net.au/blogpost/Bumper-day). Long may it continue!

I really agree with Allyson's remarks about blockbuster exhibitions - my research has found that visitors are interested in the stories we have to tell based on our own research and collections. They recognise that's our point of difference and what makes us special.

Best for 2010 and also for a successful wma.

Lydia, Katie -- thank you both so much!

it's a thick post. thanks for finding the richness within... and expanding upon it, even further!!

- james

thanks, all, for really having jumped in and made this an important lesson in defining museums, collections and cultural sites.

I would also want to put in a plug for Schwarzer having tapped Robt. Janes to come and speak in Berkeley at the JFKU Museum Studies Program re: his 2009 book Museums in Troubled World


should be a really interesting program. Marjorie, do please be sure to share details as they materialize.

Thanks, James. This is timely (of course) and def. filled with untold riches.

But Ron Chew's initial statement about museums vs. "living spaces" in China raises a question for me, not sure who might have the answer: how are the living history and historic houses faring in the States right now? I think that they most closely resemble what Ron was talking about... So how are the Henry Ford, Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village doing? How are the cultural centers of the National Parks and State Park systems doing?

Also, I notice that you seem to indicate that what seems to be helping museums stay in the black right now is a major blockbuster exhibition--perhaps THE blockbuster exhibition of our current generation. Blockbusters have been a big source of controversy ever since the last King Tut show made its rounds back in the 1970s and I think that, in part, this may have to do at least a little with the divide or at least distinction that Ron points out.

Blockbusters, in their current format, tend to be about creating an immersive experience coupled with the sensationalism of seeing truly unique yet authentic pieces of history and/or art. And when I say "truly unique," I mean, there is only one King Tut. There is only one HMS Titanic.

But it is that power to more effectively evoke a living sense of the past, either through potency of the objects or through the elaborateness of the immersive experience (or more likely, both) that blockbusters may share with the "living spaces" vs. quiet halls of glassed-in cases.

I was asked recently if commercial sites that only displayed temporary blockbuster exhibitions might be strong competition for museums [with their own permanent collections to display]. I'm honestly not sure now. I wonder if what museums will need to do in order to survive will be to separate exhibitions from research and collections--keeping a well-documented but inaccessible collection for research purposes only, but while exhibiting only what will draw the public in to pay the bills...

At heart I am, always have been and always will be a collections person. I love museum collections specifically for the authentic stories that they tell. But I find it interesting that Marjorie's findings seem to indicate that there may be some truth to what I am now beginning to see as a possible future for museums and their collections. Out of all of the strategies she mentions that museums implemented in the 1930s, the only ones related to collections were that museums tried to collect more American-made objects and that there was an effort to document and archive. Most of the other strategies had to do with social actions, activities and programming in order to be relevant. And the collections mandates do not seem so much to be about exhibiting as preserving research materials for the future.

Once again we are at a moment in the history of museums where everyone is talking about activities and programming, making connections and being socially relevant--and there is a push to more thoroughly document collections and research materials (digitizing collections etc), but not necessarily to actually use existing collections in exhibitions.

A bit of optimism to start off the new year and decade - There is hope for the future. According to Seattle Times today "Employment of curators is expected to increase 20 percent over the 2008-18 decade, faster than the average for all occupations." The source of the information isU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Focusing on the glass as half full helps, as does this article.

James...great post! I've been listening to the pundits talk about the past decade and the one before us all day today (New Years Day 2010). I was struck by a few comments that may be relevant here:

1. The nature of human relationships are evolving quickly due to the influence of social networking tools - people used to live their lives "locked into" a relatively small number of life-long personal relationships. Soon, we will go through life with many, many more personal relationships, but they will be fleeting in comparison.

2. There will never be a chasm quite a big as the one we straddle now between the generation(s) who grew up in a low-tech world and aren't adapting/adopting and the generation(s) that are growing up familiar/immersed in high-tech.

3. The definition of "expert" is starting to blur significantly. Freedom of information is changing our world quickly and permanently. Anyone can become an expert.

All of these ideas will impact museums on various levels in the future. Much food for thought out there these days... thanks for bringing these to the table.

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