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Pop Culture in Museums

I recently came across an article on SmartMoney.com called “10 Things Museums Won’t Tell You.”

There was a lot that bugged me about that article, but one point was particularly irritating.

“High culture sure ain’t what it used to be,” writes Renee DeFranco.

She goes on to complain about “blockbuster” exhibits, saying that they are essentially dumbing-down the museum experience. She specifically cites a recent traveling exhibit on Star Wars that featured props from all six of the movies.

So, I ask, what is the criteria for what “should” be shown in a museum? Aren’t we as museum professionals charged with displaying rare items for the public to enjoy?

I don’t think everyone has a piece of the set of Star Wars sitting around their home. So, why isn’t an exhibit featuring unique Star Wars artifacts appropriate? Where else can people go to see such rare things? Isn’t that what museums are about? Showing people things that can’t see anywhere else?

I will agree that the hefty admission fee to these exhibits can be a turn off. I paid about $20 to see the Princess Diana exhibit, and I paid the same to see the Titanic exhibit a few years back.

But before you complain about shelling out your cash, think about the immense rental fees the host museum has to fork over for the privilege of displaying these exhibits!

Do you realize that an exhibit rental fee can be upwards of $100,000? This fee includes research and fabrication costs, which aren't cheap. Exhibitions often take years to develop! The host museum often has to pay even more for shipping, on top of the rental fee.

The museum has to recoup their expenditure by passing it on to the visitor, who will only pay for the experience if he or she truly wants to see it. Basic economics.

In many cases, I speculate that the museum barely breaks even. Often museums are interested in hosting these high-profile exhibits to generate media attention. Bring ‘em in to see Star Wars, and maybe they’ll come back to see something else in the future.

And I’m all for attracting an audience!

In my own exhibition schedule, I try to mix things up a bit to include topics that appeal to all kinds of visitors. I am aware that an exhibit exploring the history of fashion will probably attract women. So next I might plan something highlighting automobile art photos, or local business and industry.

I’ve created some heavy-hitting history exhibits on the Roaring Twenties or the Ohio & Erie Canal, interspersed with “fun” topics like a miniature circus display or the story of chocolate.

A blockbuster exhibit not only gets the community excited about a museum that has been in their backyards for decades, it provides a reason for local businesses to sponsor the exhibit. You can also have fun with special events and educational programming that will really excite your community.

What’s wrong with that?

DeFranco also notes, “High-profile exhibits help attract a broader array of visitors, but these blockbusters aren't always smash hits with the art community.”

To which I respond, who IS our audience, anyway?

The days of curators creating exhibits for other curators are long gone.

Today’s museums are focusing on the visitor experience, and I think the “art community” is feeling some growing pains from that. No longer must every exhibition have a “higher academic message.” Sometimes people want to see costumes from Star Wars.

DeFranco is exasperated that “museums are even tapping into online sites like YouTube and Facebook to spread the word to younger audiences.”

Um, isn’t that a GOOD thing?

Don’t we WANT children and teens to come to our museums and learn something? Shouldn’t we be courting the museum-goers (and supporters) of the future NOW by using technology to reach them?

While DeFranco had some valid points in her article, there were some serious blunders that clearly show she is not intimately familiar with this field.

Check out her full article and post your own thoughts in the forum!

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