We can make “rules” about what applies to our industry – but our potential visitors and supporters do not have to follow them. And when they don’t, it’s our own loss.
What matters more: The imaginary lines that we draw from within our organizations, or public perception? Recent events got me thinking a little bit harder about some internal industry reasoning that may have made perfect sense in the past, but may not quite fit the world in which we live today.
1) Organizations can create a narrative, but the market decides its validity
It was hard not to feel for the Saint Louis Art Museum after the American presidential election. An American painting has historically served as a backdrop during the inaugural luncheon at which members of Congress host the newly elected president. George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” was the chosen painting for Donald Trump’s inauguration – and the Saint Louis Art Museum agreed to loan out the painting. The publicity that the Saint Louis Art Museum received was – on the whole – not particularly awesome. A Change.org petition was put up in protest of the museum’s decision, and there is a lot of notable media coverage on the topic.
What is interesting to me is the museum’s (in my opinion, completely rational) statement on the situation, and the questions that it raises about museums today. The Washington Post describes museum director Brent R. Benjamin’s response as follows:
“When the U.S. Senate asks the St. Louis Art Museum to be part of the inauguration, we consider that an honor,” said Benjamin. The decision, he says, wasn’t controversial; the museum was simply honoring its pre-election commitment to a bipartisan congressional committee. “We take no position either on candidates for public office or individuals who hold public office,” he says. The museum will incur no costs for shipping and securing the painting during its Washington sojourn, though critics of the museum point out that the painting is particularly popular with local audiences, and rarely travels, so its absence isn’t without local impact.”
The decision may bear public perception or reputational impacts for the museum – ones that could easily swing from the positive to the negative depending on differing points of view. This has me thinking: Can an organization in today’s world (a world that increasingly values transparency, connectivity, and blurs traditional personal/professional lines) claim to not be held accountable for taking a position, while taking an action that supports a position? I believe that this may have been possible in the past (“This is a professional honor!”) Today, though? I’m not so sure.
It strikes me that the museum took a very rational intellectual position on a matter that risked irrational perceptions because it is an actual happening. How and to what extent this affected the museum’s reputational equities will only be seen over a period of time. Maybe it won’t be negative – perhaps status quo is the worst possibility: the museum may risk being seen as an organization denying the emerging role of museums as places for discussion and conversation in a changing world. Though it may make good, intellectual sense that the museum has made such a nonpartisan statement, the statement on the action may matter less to the public than the action itself.
This recent happening got me thinking about the many other ways that some cultural organizations cross their fingers and hope with all their intellectual might that the same lines they say and think exist actually exist in real life for their constituents.
In what other ways is the world changing and we are “making rules” that our potential visitors and supporters simply don’t acknowledge? Where do we create “intellectual lines” that may actually be hurting us? Here are a few others that come to mind…
2) Industry definitions and classifications do not necessarily matter to the market
Within the cultural industry, we do a lot of intellectual line-drawing. My first full-time job out of college was working with a totally bomb science center in Seattle and I thank my lucky stars every day for that work-horse, passion-driven, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, deeply nerdy, frustrating, frantic, wonderful job. (I even got to voice a television commercial and felt like a star!) If there is one thing that was reinforced to me seemingly every day it was that “We are not a museum. We are a SCIENCE CENTER.” (This is not unique to the science center where I worked. Science centers and science museums often attend or prioritize entirely different association conferences!) Imagine my surprise when I got to IMPACTS and came across data that instead suggested: The market does not reliably distinguish between science centers and science museums.
It’s true. While some folks may be able to distinguish the nuance that differentiates these respective experiences, the data indicate that the overwhelming majority of visitors simply do not sit around contemplating organization type classifications. We found that when members of the public were asked to identify their favorite science center, many would reference a science museum. Similarly, when we asked the public to name the science museum that they’d most recently attended, many would identify a science center. Though they are based on intellectual distinctions, some lines that we draw are often imaginary to the public, which raises the question: Do these lines even matter? Or worse, do they hold us back?
Moreover, how the industry classifies its own organizations – and how much case studies, data, models and examples apply (or don’t apply) to the groups – can be similarly imaginary. What do data indicate is the most top-of-mind science museum or science center in the US? The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
“WHAT?! That’s a history museum!” Nope. Not according to the market.
Here is why this is important: When cultural executives “that doesn’t apply to me” (I’m using that as a verb) industry trends, it is usually because they have drawn imaginary, defensive lines to protect themselves from facing uncomfortable realities. It does not matter how much a science center, for instance, hopes that the National Air and Space Museum is not in its competitive set. According to the market, it is – and the market matters for our survival. (This is but one example of an imaginary line that we draw. It also happens between orchestras vs. symphonies, encyclopedic vs. contemporary art museums, and many other types of organizations.)
3) The hybridization of experiences affects all organizations
The phenomenon of point of reference sensitivity elevates the call to action for organizations to communicate their singular experiences and missions. Some organizations are doing an excellent job, and they come to be known as a kind of gold standard for their type of cultural organization. However, organizations shifting their content offerings and being “more than a museum” (for example) are having an effect on the market. The experiences historically attendant to visitor-serving organizations are evolving to include non-traditional content. This happening blurs historic perceptions of what comprises a particular “type” of visitor-serving organization.
For example, some aquariums feature rain forests – once the historical province of conservatories and botanical gardens. Some children’s museums have civil rights exhibits – once the province of history museums and historic sites. Some science museums feature aquatic life – once the province of aquariums. Some orchestras have vocalists – once the province of theaters or operas. These hybridizations, consolidations, and integrations of experiences were initially theorized to broaden appeal and expand the market. Indeed, it certainly helps to increase elements of surprise and perceptions of providing a unique experience when these elements fit cohesively into an organization’s mission.
Increasingly, hybridization is the norm – not the exception. This compounds previously discussed challenges regarding the historic perceptions of what defines and/or distinguishes any specific type of enterprise (e.g. science center v. science museum). More importantly, if the distinction matters less to the public, perhaps it ought not matter so much to us.
4) It is not that nothing applies to us, but that most everything does
When we draw imaginary lines within our industry or organizations – from our classifications to our insistence that potentially polarizing actions “do not count” -perhaps we are purposefully making a choice to be blind to the new world in which we live. Today, it is the market that is the ultimate arbiter of our successes.
Question: Who wins in the lexicon game of “Museum vs. Center vs. Academy vs. Discovery Hub vs. Other-Magic-Words-That-We-Think-Make-Us-Special?”
Answer: Whoever provides the most unique, satisfying, connective, and meaningful experience.
Don’t get me wrong: The words that we use certainly matter to the market – but our actions matter more. When we focus on imaginary lines and forget that we can determine importance but the market determines relevance, we risk allowing parsed, internal definitions to overrule prevailing public sentiments. We risk creating “exemptions” based on an internal distinction that the market does not recognize.
Today’s truth may be that it’s not that “that doesn’t apply to me” – it is that everything does. Market trends play an important role in how organizations need to operate in order to achieve success. The key is to ask hard questions and consider that Babe Ruth was onto something when he said that “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”
We are playing a new game – but we don’t make the rules.
We offer expert-informed suggestions. The market decides if we’re playing ball.