This article represents number two in our ongoing series of “short thoughts”, written by Art Radar founder, Kate Cary Evans. Continue to follow the series to read Kate’s musings on contemporary art world developments and trends.
From time to time our contributors who are based around the world come into Hong Kong and we get together for a chat usually in the afternoon at one of the wooden tables in the Main Bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. They are a smart team at Art Radar, and I look forward to these meetings because conversation is provocative and stimulating.
At our last meeting, sitting under the fans in this 1913 heritage building, one of the group mentioned that she was applying for an internship at a prestigious international art museum. As part of the application process she was required to write 500 words on the future of art museums and she wanted ideas. It turned out to be a great starting point for a vigorous debate.
In the recent past, museums have played several roles but the principal two are education and its traditional job of caring for collections of culturally significant artifacts. Attracting tourists, commemorating people, entertainment and promotion of culture have also emerged as important but lesser activities as traditional funding sources have come under pressure or change.
How will this increasingly globalised, digitally-connected world press our art museums into new shapes?
The digital world will be the most significant force for change in the near future. As a centre for educating the masses, the museum faces severe competition from the Internet. Education and the Internet are made for one another. Although some art museums are doing an excellent job of developing their Internet-based education resources, Internet schools, courses and resources are cheap to set up, content is difficult to protect and there are no barriers to entry. It is not worthwhile for museums to compete on mass education.
Instead they should look to their competitive advantages. What do art museums have which no one else has and no one else can get? They have their physical collections. They have their physical buildings. And they have their brands.
In the recent past, funding pressures and politics have forced emphasis onto increasing footfall. Museums have been producing dumbed-down shows to attract as many people as possible including non-native language tourists and young school children. This is doing nothing for the preservation of the best brands.
Some museums have produced startlingly spectacular blockbuster exhibitions to attract mass numbers of visitors. Great fun… and perhaps there will always be room for these kinds of shows, but only in large museums. People like to gasp in awe and that requires a sizeable structure.
Just as museums cannot compete with the power of the Internet to educate the masses cheaply and conveniently, small museums will not be able to compete with the power of the Internet to entertain the masses either.
So what to do? Perhaps museums would do better to avoid providing services designed for mass appeal and instead focus on services based around their collections. Perhaps their collections could become physical teaching tools and the museums themselves centres of niche scholarship at the highest level. Perhaps they should align themselves with well-endowed universities where scholarship is valued more than eyeballs. Let fees, endowments and gifts from students pay for the archives, teachers and collections.
Museums do not need to worry about including, excluding or connecting with people so much any more: much of this can be done cheaply, organically and automatically on the Internet, particularly as better interactive software develops. Now what is needed more than anything is excellence in scholarship.
I have taken a provocative stance and am willing to be dissuaded. Where do you think the future of museums lies? Leave a comment below.