Monday, March 17, 2008

Should public opinion influence museums?

The New York Times reported last Tuesday that museums are beginning to spend more time analyzing visitor feedback in order to ramp up attendance.
While museum market research has been around for two decades, gathering data about visitors has never been as important, or as sophisticated, as it is now. As museums expand, they need more paying customers to cover ever-increasing costs. And they’re competing for those customers with local shopping malls, movie theaters, even grocery stores.

“I call it the water-park phenomenon,” said Ford Bell, president and chief executive of the American Association of Museums in Washington. “A zillion other things are competing for our leisure time. People might visit a museum to see a Monet or a toaster or a textile display — what’s important is it’s getting them in the door.”

The Detroit Museum even employed door to door interviews along with traditional phone and mail out survey methods in order to find out what prospective visitors would like to see. The Metropolitan Museum of Art began their "Pop Rally" series in an effort to attract more visitors in the 20-30 year age range. Both of these museums say that the results of their research do not affect the content of their exhibitions, instead they say these results are simply used to determine their presentation. However some museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, do allow public opinion to determine their mix of exhibitions and it is this trend that has curators worried.
While serving up what audiences want may be a smart business move, there is a fear by curators that things can go too far, that catering to public opinion could dumb down a museum and supplant curatorial wisdom. Are museums for high culture or low? Places to see Ralph Lauren’s car collection and “Star Wars” costumes, props and drawings rather than Vermeer and Renaissance tapestries?

I don't really know how I feel about this one. I mean "Star Wars" may not be high art, but it has affected multiple generations of our culture as has Ralph Lauren. I personally find Vermeer and Renaissance tapestries to be a lot more interesting, but I don't have the only opinion that counts and my attendance alone certainly won't keep a museum open.

No comments: