Centre for the Future of Museums, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Chichu Art Museum, Cyrus cylinder, Gemäldegalerie, Heydar Aliyev Museum Center in Baku, Louvre Museum, Mona Lisa, Museum of African Art, museums and visitors, public satisfaction, The National Museum in Delhi
What museums must do to satisfy an increasingly demanding public…
Museums are meant to preserve and safeguard the collections entrusted to them, which makes them naturally conservative. Yet with public funds likely to remain tight for the foreseeable future, and private money free to back institutions that are seen as winners, they will have to do some innovative thinking over the next 20 years, both to deal with unavoidable change and to seize new opportunities.
Heydar Aliyev Museum Center in Baku
The obvious winners will be big institutions in the main capital cities that attract high-spending tourists, though even some of those could do much better. The Louvre, for example, is overcrowded, badly lit and poorly signposted. Up to 30,000 people a day head for the “Mona Lisa”, so her smile gets lost in the crush. And the pickpocketing round I.M. Pei’s pyramid entrance has become so notorious that in April the staff went on strike.
By contrast, the ten-year revamp of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has turned out to be worth the wait. The great paintings of the Dutch golden age are displayed alongside weaponry, ships’ models and felt hats. The lighting may well be the best of its kind, allowing visitors to see exactly how Vermeer painted ermine or to pick out the many shades of white that Pieter Jansz Saenredam used in his pictures of church interiors.
Small, niche museums with imaginative leadership are also likely to retain a devoted following. Ask museum directors to pick a favourite, and many give the same answer: the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima island in southern Japan. Designed by Tadao Ando, the building is itself a work of art. Inside there are a few carefully selected installations. Visitors arrive by boat and are encouraged to stay the night so they can see James Turrell’s “Open Sky” installation at sunset.
Second-tier museums that try to be encyclopedic on limited funds will have a hard time. The outlook for public funding of museums, especially in Europe, is bleak. Many provincial institutions in America may also suffer. Museums there are registered as not-for-profit organisations to take advantage of state and federal tax concessions. But this arrangement is now coming under pressure because some see it as a way of using poor people’s tax money to pay for rich people’s cultural pastimes.
Preaching to the converted
Museum visitors in Europe and America are still overwhelmingly well-educated, white, middle-aged and middle-class, though London’s V&A proudly points out that last year 19% of the visits made to its three museums were by people from ethnic-minority backgrounds. At the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, one of the finest collections of historical paintings in Europe, it would be fairly unusual to run into a family of Turkish immigrants, concedes its director, Bernd Lindemann.
In America minorities make up a third of the population but account for only 20% of museum staff and 9% of visitors. The opening of a proposed Museum of African Art in Manhattan has been postponed five times for lack of funds. Last summer the board changed its name to the New Africa Centre and expanded its remit in the hope of attracting the money it needs to finish it.
In about 30 years only half of America’s population will be white. If museums are to be relevant to their local communities and keep up the flow of visitors, especially in western and southern states, they will have to appeal to radically different audiences and rethink their relationships with those who will be voting on public funding for museums in future.
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn
Today’s museums are acutely aware that their visitors have more and more choices about how they spend their time and money. Elizabeth Merritt of the Centre for the Future of Museums in Washington, DC, calls it the “unbundling of cultural experiences”. Even museum enthusiasts may not necessarily have to visit the building. A film of a recent exhibition about Pompei at the BM has been screened in more than 1,000 cinemas in 51 countries.
Consumers of culture now prefer to decide for themselves how they want knowledge and information served up to them, as testified by the growing popularity of pop-up museums and crowdsourced projects. “They want the opportunity to play in our sandbox,” says Ms Merritt. Curators, who used to be seen (and saw themselves) as experts, are now having to act more like facilitators or mentors.
To keep the public coming and ensure their own survival, museums need to try much harder to give their visitors what they want. Many institutions in the West already understand that. Now developing countries are waking up to the idea as well, and not before time. In India, for instance, most museums are moribund. The National Museum in Delhi has been without a director for the past seven years. In Kolkata’s Indian Museum, the region’s oldest and biggest, it is not just the bear that is losing its stuffing; the whole collection is in such bad shape that in September it closed down until further notice.
But there is one shining exception: the century-old Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, which now has a tongue-twisting new name—the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya—that abbreviates to CSMVS. Until recently the CSMVS was as dilapidated as the rest, but today the museum has over 1m visitors a year, a handsome government subsidy and a devoted group of private fund-raisers. What saved it was a decision in 2007 to do things differently. When its energetic director, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, asked his staff what it should be doing, chief among the ideas put forward was to reach out far more, not just to Mumbai city-dwellers who would normally never think of visiting a museum but to other museums around the world. Now the CSMVS has partnerships with the BM, the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Such international partnerships are about much more than money. Neil MacGregor, the BM’s director, believes that museums can be a force for nation-building and peace. This month his institution sent its famous Cyrus cylinder (pictured below) to Mumbai as part of a journey that has already taken it to Iran and America. The 2,600-year-old clay cylinder is covered in cuneiform script proclaiming that Cyrus the Great, the emperor of Persia, would allow anyone who had been imprisoned or enslaved by his predecessors to return home, and that the statues of their different gods could be returned to their original shrines to be freely worshipped. No ruler before Cyrus had done anything like this. This sort of show—about man’s common humanity—captures the public imagination. Museums which can do that still have a bright future.
Main Illustration: The Museum / Joanne Young
Resources: The Economist