What are museums for?

Jo Marsh, a director at brand consultancy Jane Wentworth Associates, poses five fundamental questions that all museums must try to answer if they are to stay relevant and build their audiences for the future

Let’s start with a co-created definition. This is the search result for ‘museum’ on Wikipedia: “A museum is an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary.”

This is pretty standard stuff and there are plenty of other similar descriptions residing in dictionaries and the museum statute books. The emphasis is the weight of the ‘institution’ performing a protective role, taking a position of authority that decides when the ‘public’ can view the collections it cares for and the exhibitions it curates. It feels static, didactic and remote and takes little account of a wider context or world in which the museum exists. It confirms a perception held by many that the museum is an impervious, neoclassical façade, aloof and irrelevant, uncommunicative and just a bit boring.

outdoor art installation House of treasure Cao Fei
House of treasure Cao Fei (Featured in Mobile M+, image courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

That world is anything but static or permanent, but hugely volatile, shifting and uncertain. We’re facing unprecedented changes across every aspect of our lives – economic, social, financial and environmental – and everything is moving faster and faster with the global connections and communities enabled by what is no less than a digital revolution (some of us still remember a time when we corresponded by fax….)

So are museums keeping up with the rate of change? And is this definition still relevant, or even accurate?

Museums of the future

Museums don’t exist in a vacuum: they aren’t immune to external influences and they are undergoing radical change. No longer hushed cathedrals of knowledge, where the audience must be seen, but not heard, the successful museum today puts the visitor right at the heart of all its thinking to create a vibrant focus for the community. A place where different cultures collide, where old and young can learn together, where the traditional is juxtaposed with the contemporary, where conventional wisdom is challenged, where collections are given new meaning and people’s lives are re-imagined.

Successful museums are engaging their audiences in conversation, inviting them to ask questions, to share opinions, to influence the exhibitions they want, even to have a hand in making them. And they are not just inviting the public to engage with the collections within the museum, but to become part of a community without boundaries, connected by a shared interest and an emotional engagement with the subject.

Outdoor art installation With the wind by Jiakun Architects
With the wind by Jiakun Architects (Featured in Mobile M+, image courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

Underlying and informing these major shifts is an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the need not just to articulate what they do (as per the Wikipedia definition) but why they do it – their purpose and impact in the world. In other words, museums are developing an acute sense of the benefits of their work, their impact on society, the experience they offer audiences and the image they want to project.

To stay relevant in a changing world today’s museums must address their brands by asking themselves some fundamental questions, which go to the heart of what they stand for. Here are five to start with:

1. How do we reflect the world?

One of the global realities facing us all is the biggest migration of people since the second world war, which is creating significant challenges to the notion of national identity and culture and what these mean for displaced populations. As guardians of culture, museums are ideally placed to help us understand a world of shifting identities. In Berlin a conglomerate of museums, including the German Historical Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art have created with a project called ‘Multaqa’ (meaning ‘meeting point’ in Arabic). Refugees from Iraq and Syria have been trained as museum tour guides – providing them with much needed employment, a vital sense of identity and an opportunity to generate empathy between cultures. These museums are extending way beyond the function of conservation, they are actively responding to a need, connecting cultures and generating new ways of working.

Refugees from Iraq and Syria work as tour guides in Berlin museums
Multaqa, or ‘meeting point’ in Arabic, is a joint initiative by a group of Berlin museums under which refugees from Iraq and Syria have been retrained to work as tour guides. Images: AR Laub

2. Who are we for?

This is one of the most obvious, most simple and crucial questions a museum can ask itself. According to the Wikipedia definition they are there for the ‘public’ and rightly so as many museums are caring for collections which the public actually own. But museums can’t afford to simply be the guardians of the public’s collections. Today’s audiences want to be part of the conversation, they want to participate and join in. SMK in Copenhagen – Denmark’s national gallery of art, asked audiences a very direct question: what do we mean to you? Posed through a playful and experimental dialogue, they asked audiences to fill in their initials S M K with their own words. There were some fantastic answers and the audience’s new definition of their national gallery became the inspiration and basis for an advertising campaign across Denmark’s capital. The message here was loud and clear – this is your collection so you tell us what we are. SMK are enjoying an increase in audience numbers and demonstrated that if you create dialogue and excitement around great work you’ll be noticed and if you can talk about it in a language that is relevant you’ll attract new audiences.

3. Who needs walls?

In an era of digital ubiquity, the physical walls and buildings of the museum become less important. Digital technology is providing audiences with the opportunities to access, share, activate, personalise and own collections in new ways. The British Museum’s partnership with the Google Cultural Institute allows us to navigate through thousands of years of objects and make thematic, geographic and historic connections that would be completely impossible as a physical visitor. It releases the potential of the BM’s collection and provides new platforms for the museum’s expertise and knowledge. It’s not just about harnessing digital technology. M+ in West Kowloon, part of the gigantic cultural offering emerging in Hong Kong, has built a collection, an audience and a brand without a building, but with a public programme of nomadic, pre-opening exhibitions which included Jeremy Deller’s hugely entertaining life-size, inflatable, replica of Stonehenge. This is all driven by their ambition to explore how you engage an audience with an idea rather than a building. Museums without walls or neoclassical pillars to hide behind have to think of more imaginative ways of engaging an audience.

Gathering data for the British Museum’s collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute; the online collection on Google
Gathering data for the British Museum’s collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute; the online collection on Google

4. How can we stand out?

Partnerships are a great way of building new audiences, inspiring fresh thinking, creating much needed income and standing out. The Art Institute of Chicago has teamed up with airbnb to recreate a real version of one of the most iconic bedrooms in art history – Van Gogh’s bedroom in his yellow house in Arles. The room – for rent for $10 per night – has been created to coincide with the Institute’s Van Gogh exhibition. It extends the experience of the exhibition, generates new opportunities for a museum to connect to new audiences and customers in surprising ways and has created a huge amount of media interest. The V&A has similarly captured our imagination through immersive, theatrical and beautifully curated and designed exhibitions, including ‘David Bowie Is’ and ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’. They stimulate your emotions and then lead you directly to the shop. And it works. The V&A shop achieved £3.6million in sales for the Bowie exhibition. Museums are proving that they understand that an engaged visitor is a spending customer by creating memorable exhibitions reflected in a sophisticated retail offer. It extends the experience for the audience and allows them to take a little bit of it home with them.

 A tie-up between the Art Institute of Chicago and AirBnB, devised by Leo Burnett, gave visitors the chance to stay in a recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom
A tie-up between the Art Institute of Chicago and AirBnB, devised by Leo Burnett, gave visitors the chance to stay in a recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom

5. How do we get the best out of our staff?

Staff are a museum’s biggest asset so how do we get the best out of them, especially when budgets are tight? By creating engagement – the process by which people who work in an organisation feel invested in what it’s trying to achieve and are motivated and empowered to make the right decisions. Research shows that the more engaged staff are, the more successful the organisation. In the culture sector, there are many benefits: more members; increased donations; a stronger reputation; and reduced staff turnover and sickness. Museums are realising that it’s not just about caring for their collections in buildings, it’s about their people. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts invested in a culture transformation project and it translated into a 50% increase in their audience. This project has been about transforming into a purpose driven organisation, which aimed to unify staff behind a clear idea – “to make art and human creativity accessible”. The staff are using this idea to make the decisions, that’s living the brand in the day to day and is far from being a dry mission statement in a corporate plan that no-one uses.

 A tie-up between the Art Institute of Chicago and AirBnB, devised by Leo Burnett, gave visitors the chance to stay in a recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom
A tie-up between the Art Institute of Chicago and AirBnB, devised by Leo Burnett, gave visitors the chance to stay in a recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom

A new definition

The 21st century museum is not there just to care for and conserve collections. They’re offering us, the “public”, much more than the passive act of viewing. They provide us with a space – digital and physical –where we can redefine and immerse ourselves, co-create and co-curate, content we can activate and dynamic environments for shopping, eating and socialising. They also communicate their relevance by reflecting the world in which they exist.

Now that’s starting to look like a more exciting definition of a museum. Anyone want to rewrite the Wikipedia entry?

Jo Marsh is a Director and Consultant at brand consultancy Jane Wentworth Associates; a Trustee of Wysing Arts Centre and a member of the Advisory Committee for the ‘Communicating the Museum’ conference.

Lead image: Sacrilege by Jeremy Deller (Featured in Mobile M+, image courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

This article has been published in our July 2016 issue, out now. 


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