The Entertainment Straightjacket

October 14, 2014 General Musings

During my Museum Life interview with Nancy Proctor on October 10, 2014, Nancy stated that museums need to move away from thinking of themselves as destinations, especially when making decisions about their digital resources. This got me thinking about what other models may have outlived their usefulness or worse, trapped us into accepting the model without questioning its assumptions.

There has been significant cross-pollination between museums and themed entertainment attractions over the past years. Numerous marketing and management consultants work for both types of institutions, and sometimes offer similar recommendations. The TEA/AECOM Theme and Museum Index lists the top theme parks and museums and many museum professionals attend IAPPA. In fact, IAPPA has a day devoted to museums.

The purpose of themed entertainment such as the Disney parks or Six Flags Over America is…entertainment. Certainly museums hope to entertain and create enjoyable experiences. After all, antonyms for entertainment are depression and dissatisfaction. What museum wants that? But I wonder if museums would frame their issues differently and make decisions differently if they could free themselves from the entertainment model. What if museums didn’t feel the tension of balancing mission and (mass) market?

Almost every museum has to support itself through some amount of earned income. In an entertainment business model much of that revenue comes through ticket sales. For museums this translates into an emphasis on marketing and advertizing strategies that get “bodies through the door” and reach the widest possible audience—especially those audiences that are economically advantaged to afford the ticket! Then to serve our mission and perhaps assuage our guilt, we pursue corporate or private funding to offset the cost of serving those in the community that cannot pay, which can have the unintended consequence of stigmatizing some members of our communities.

What would happen if we were confident in our identity as mission institutions? Would we focus our marketing and advertizing strategies differently? Would we seek out audiences based on their affinity to our mission and interest in our subject matter? Could we be more creative in reaching these niche audiences rather than feeling we have to reach everyone and be everything to everybody? Perhaps this entertainment model has led us to believe that serving our communities means engaging a mass market.

Another consequence of the entertainment model is many museums consider their digital presence primarily a marketing tool. Our web sites are electronic rack brochures. We cite with confidence that most people plan their museum visit by doing research on the internet. That may be true for tourists planning a trip to a new city, but is that true for local audiences? Repeat audiences? What about those audiences that can never physically visit the museum?

What if we framed our choices about using digital technologies as ways to realize our mission to share our knowledge and enthusiasm? Would that help us to embrace our position as being part of a distributed network as Nancy suggests rather than feeling we are the information hub and our audiences are receptive spokes?

Entertainment attractions must constantly change their offerings and reinvest their capital into new experiences: change or die. But museums are chronically undercapitalized. Museums can’t compete with theme parks in terms of reinvestment dollars yet many museums continue to stress their budgets and their staff to maintain a high level of change. Entertainment model thinking leads museums to quest after the newest technologies and the biggest wow factors to lure a fickle public through their doors.

What would happen to the quality and quantity of exhibitions if museums made decisions based on mission potential rather than market potential? Would that reduce the level of anxiety around a new permanent exhibition project? Could a museum tolerate more risk and encourage more creativity if the purpose of the exhibition was to deepen relationships with existing audiences and supporters? Would the exhibit team have more freedom?

Would we stop calling exhibit design “packaging?”

As I noted above, entertainment attractions must appeal to the broadest audience, offending none and, frankly, not asking a lot from the audience in terms of thoughtful attention. If museums didn’t adhere to the entertainment model, would we relate to our audiences differently? Would we be more empathetic? Would we see our audiences as individuals with whom we could establish relationships instead of faceless groups we have to serve?

There are certainly museums that are cultural attractions (and entertaining too). The list of top ten museum attractions includes the Louvre, Prado and Smithsonian. These institutions play an integral role in attracting millions of visitors to their respective cities and fueling economic engines. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But most museums operate on a smaller physical scale and are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the entertainment model.

What if they didn’t have to? Do we gain freedom from unrealistic expectations if we think of ourselves as mission institutions? Do we have the courage to define ourselves without relying on the attraction defense when asked to justify our value? Are we brave enough to say simply, we are museums, like no other type of institution?

I want to thank Nancy Proctor for a wonderful conversation and for sparking my thoughts in this manner. A consulting practice is always growing. I’m always growing, questioning my assumptions and refining my thinking. Perhaps this discussion will spark others to question the models that we have adopted over the years and jettison those that constrain our creative thinking.