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Thursday, March 14, 2013
I have climbed up into the mountains of Virginia to try to catch a glimpse of the future of the American museum. The view is bleak in places, but encouraging in the distance.
As I write this, I am attending the annual conference of the Virginia Association of Museums at the Homestead in Hot Springs. The extravagance of the opulent resort is a luxury for those of us living on a nonprofit salary, but it's a beneficial experience as well. I've come to explore where we in the museum community go from here, and how.
The Virginia Association of Museums exists, of course, to promote the cause of museums throughout the commonwealth. It's an excellent and well-led organization, the largest such in the nation. It provides numerous resources, offers valuable professional contacts and performs overall advocacy for museums of all sizes and sorts. Whether you run a museum professionally, volunteer to sit at a welcome desk or serve on a board of directors, VAM provides resources to improve your institution and make your job easier.
We live in a time when museums face important - even existential - challenges. Museum professionals who pay attention know that things have been changing for a generation now. Not long ago, everyone knew what a museum was and what it should be doing and how it would be done (pretty much how it had always been done). Those days are no longer here. What the modern generation thinks about a museum, what its members expect when they visit - much has changed enormously in just a short period of time.
We feel this especially in institutions that can broadly be termed historic sites. At a conference session dealing with historic homes, a speaker asked how many sites had seen a drop in attendance over the past decade. Nearly every hand went up. Even such venerable destination sites as Williamsburg and Monticello have seen numbers at the gate declining. Warning bells sounded in 2007 when Carter's Grove, a Tidewater plantation house affiliated with Colonial Williamsburg, closed as a museum.
Many factors are driving these trends. The number of museums has proliferated in recent years; so there are more institutions competing for an increasingly smaller piece of the pie. Meanwhile, we now have a more mobile, more diverse, less community-grounded population. A recent arrival who knows he will live here for only a short while is not likely to give as much thought to a local museum as a third-generation resident.
Further, much of the information that was once the exclusive domain of museums is now available from many different sources - the Internet, documentaries, "Downton Abbey." Then there's what I call the "see it once" phenomenon. Families now typically collect experiences. They go to Gettysburg once, not yearly as their parents did. Next year, they're on to some other place, and they check it off of their mental list. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
But I don't intend for this to sound dismal and beyond hope. Even with these challenges, there are 850 million museum visits in America each year - three times the attendance at professional sports events. Museums still matter and still make a difference.
The challenge for any museum then is to find new ways to engage the next generation, meeting its changing expectations. And this is where exciting things are happening. A 20-year-old wants to see interactive exhibits, flashy technology, bells and whistles. He expects to learn experientially and is more interested in narrative history connected to his experience than in dusty artifacts under glass. "Please do not touch" doesn't appeal to him much.
The staid museum that our grandparents knew, with pretty furniture or antique objects in display cases and little type-written captions describing them, no longer cuts it. That museum served grandpa well, but it's not a viable model anymore. However, we need not shut the door or even fundamentally change the focus. But we really need to revitalize the means of delivering the message.
Like many institutions (churches, colleges, retail establishments), museums must constantly recreate themselves. Museums have a lot to offer, but if offered in ways no one wants to utilize, it does exactly no good.
So look for the museum of tomorrow to be more interactive, more user-friendly, more hands-on, less somber. There are lots of bridges to cross before we get there, but from this particular mountaintop, it's not hard to see into a brighter future.
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