Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are We Worrying About the Wrong Things?

Two different online posts/queries came across my inbox today which made me think about where museums might be headed. The American Association of Museums posted a Facebook link to a newspaper story about two museums in Fort Worth, the Kimball and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. At the very end of the article, the author shared a tip: how to sneak into the latter museum and avoid the $10 fee. Responses to the article, in general, were about the moral and ethical implications--legitimate concerns, but perhaps masking the real issues. On Museum-L, a query about allowing photography in museums drew numerous responses--most of them in favor of restricting all photographic access.

I'm certainly not condoning sneaking into anywhere, but I think we need to think about why this is. Like many of my museum colleagues, I've worked at the front desk, and have, on occasion, answered the would-be visitor's question, "Is it worth it?" And yes, as a visitor I have stood in front of a museum, wondering if the admission was worth it (but no, I've never asked a front desk person that). Elaine Heumann Gurian has written eloquently about her belief that museums should be free--and that our admission costs are the single biggest barrier to connecting to our communities. In Great Britain, where museums are supported to a much larger degree by public funding, free admission has resulted in millions more museum visitors.

So perhaps we shouldn't be angry at the author of the article, but continue to think more deeply about how we can encourage all of our communities to either support museums the way they do libraries--free to all--or to ensure that the experiences we offer are valued by those who pay for them.

That photography post? I like to take pictures in museums--I appreciate my colleagues' work and often want to share it with others as inspiration. I like to see how visitors interact, how beautiful spaces can be, and more. Perhaps two years ago, I heard a great session at AAM with a speaker from the Japanese American National Museum. An anime exhibit, designed to attract younger audiences, was curated by an outside curator who insisted that visitors be allowed to take photographs in the exhibition. The staff was initially a bit dubious, but relented. Why did he insist? Because then visitors would blog about it, post their pictures on Facebook, and put cellphone videos on Youtube--and then more people would visit. The result was just as he predicted. More visitors--and more visitors going through the entire museum. And, if you think visitors are obeying that dictate--just do a quick search of "sneak museum photo" on Flickr.

I've been reading several articles about a new book, Free, by Chris Anderson. It's about the online marketplace and the paradox of making money from free things. (and a caveat--I just found an article that shows that some of Anderson's passages are lifted directly from Wikipedia without attribution and Anderson has admitted the mistake) I've not read the book yet, but a brief article in this week's Newsweek provides a summary which makes me want to learn more--and perhaps provides a way for museums to think about their place in the market:
  • Win-win freeconomics. Monty Python gave away some free clips on Youtube. The result: their Amazon sales up 23,000 percent.
  • The cost of online infotainment is distributed so that it's hidden or so distributed that it's imperceptible.
  • Companies trafficking in ideas (that's us, right?) drop prices as the execution of said ideas gets more efficient.
  • And perhaps most importantly, says Anderson, "there's no going back." A new generation assumes free access as a given.
In the name of protection do we risk becoming irrelevant?

And by the way, Free can be downloaded for free here.

Top to bottom:
London museum, by Kaustav Bhattacharya on Flickr
Tokyo museum ticket, by kimnchris on Flickr
On exhibition at The Hyde Collection


Nina Simon said...

I was also taken aback by the ferocity of the comments about photo policies on the AAM listserv, especially those that had a "we know what's best for you" air.

Henry Jenkins has a newish paper called "If it doesn't spread, it's dead" about "spreadable" (as opposed to viral) content. Photography makes artifacts and museum content spreadable. I know there are sometimes valid concerns, but when there aren't, I wonder about the decision to lock up museum content under draconian policies that can effectively kill its spreadability.

Werekat said...

As far as I remembered American museums - and most others, for that matter - photography is usually disallowed when it can harm the exhibition. For instance, some mixes of paint are light-sensitive enough so that a flash might harm them, as is old fabric from costumes, and so on. Non-flash photography is often allowed... Or am I mistaken? Where could I read up on it?

- Kateryna Zorya

Linda Norris said...


Thanks so much for the spreadable article--great food for thought. When I think about those draconian policies is when I understand why movies always depict museum people the same way--fussy, authoritarian, in a bow tie!

And do let me know if you get to Kelvingrove this fall. I'll be in Scotland over Christmas so hope to see it then as well.

Linda Norris said...

First, how nice to hear from you! I hope you're well, and can see from Nadiya's Facebook photos that you're successfully graduated.

The rules about photography seem very inconsistent. Flash is almost always prohibited, but many museums allow non-flash photography. And with the advent of cell phone tours, I suspect many more photos are being taken, illicitly or not.

I'll try to find some additional info and email you.

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