“The museum of the past must be set aside, reconstructed, transformed from a cemetery of bric-a-brac into a nursery of living thought.”
More than ever, museums are brands. And those brands are an important part of the popular culture landscape. It’s time to think differently about what it now means to be a museum for the consumers of today and tomorrow.
Originating from the word Greek work mousa, which means “muse”, and mouseion, which means “seat of the Muses”, the word museum originally was meant to designate a philosophical institution or place of contemplation. The contemporary understanding of most museums, unless designed for children or science, still contains strong elements of this idea. The ethos often is: “Look, but don’t touch; appreciate, but don’t interact”.
With today’s museums competing for consumer time and mindshare across all forms of entertainment, this reality presents a disconnect for young people in search of experiences and personal connections with brands. But while that may pose myriad challenges, it also presents cultural institutions with terrific opportunities.
As they move away from materialism towards creating memories that matter, today’s young people seek community. That means shared experiences, the building blocks of community. Even brands in slow-to-adapt industries like fashion have come to embrace this change. Whether through an actual appreciation for the richer connections formed or simply based on sound business sense, they have shifted away from promoting products to aligning around purposes. These brands actively communicate why they exist, not just telling us but showing us how they fit into and uplift our lives. And where the ability to show and to engage has not existed in-house, they have gone outside, forming partnerships and collaborations that allow them to access the skills and knowledge necessary to deliver on this promise.
For museums to adapt and stake out territory today, more is required than just added-on channels of potential interaction. It goes beyond simply throwing an iPad or a slick new app on top of a staid exhibit. Fitting into this new landscape requires a drastic reimagining of what museums mean as well as recapturing the spirit of what led to their creation.
• a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public
• an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also : a place where objects are exhibited
The current definition of museum is incredibly close to the one that first appeared in the 17th century. Trouble is, “a building to display objects” is static, boring and ill-suited for today. It’s likely that if somebody were to design, build and operate one around such an idea it couldn’t help but limit its possibilities.
To help museums discover opportunity and fit into today’s reality, they need to escape their current mindset and orientation and look back in history to the private Wunderkammer, precursor to the modern notion of museum as public institution.
The Wunderkammer, or “wonder chamber” in the original German, rose out of two of mankind’s basic urges—the desire to collect and the need to satisfy curiosity. As the Tate Britain or Modern describes it:
“These collections were created as a result of a growing desire among the peoples of Europe to place mankind accurately within the grand scheme of nature and the divine….Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were collections of rare, valuable, historically important or unusual objects, which generally were compiled by a single person, normally a scholar or nobleman, for study and/or entertainment.”
These private cabinets, personally curated around someone’s strong desire to know, provided a source of delight for their owners and anyone else to whom they were shown. They offered a record of discovery and an attempt to connect with and find order within the greater world. In a sense, these cabinets were the material manifestations of things that still drive us today.
“As time passed and the Wunderkammer evolved and grew in importance, the small private cabinets…were absorbed into larger ones…After a time, these noble and royal collections were institutionalized and turned into public museums.”
Art and artifacts are products of human experience. They help us to see what could be; help us to understand where we’re from, who we are, where we’re going. They play a crucial role in our lives, connecting us across barriers of language, culture and time. As such, they carry enormous power, something museums could do a far better job of harnessing. Along with taking on the stewardship of these products of culture comes the awesome responsibility of ensuring that the greatest number of people experience them in the most profound ways possible.
We are today in an age of engagement. Everywhere brands both old and new are striving to create compelling content, attempting to deliver better, more personalized experiences–all aimed at increasing our personal connection to the brand. Through these actions customers are being invited in, welcomed to contribute to the continuous creation of what the brand is.
The ongoing technological revolution has given us 21st-century pocket-sized wunderkammers, devices with various applications and services that help satisfy our basic drives to be curious and to collect. This revolution is drastically changing how young people interact with art, culture and cultural institutions.
“With Millennials spending more than 30 hours a month on social media sites, survey findings show social media channels, such as Instagram and Pinterest, are the preferred art discovery tool among Millennials. Nearly half (44.3%) of young Millennials age 18-24 and 33.8 percent of older Millennials age 25-34 indicate they discover new art through social media channels,” as opposed to alternate channels such as museums and galleries.
Nowadays we curate and collect via Pinterest and other apps, discover via Instagram and other social networks. We feel delight in doing both, a sensation only heightened when others interact with what we’ve found, giving us likes, copying our pins, sharing our content.
This is not to sound the death knell of museums. These new tools and new environment are both liberating and inspiring. They offer an opportunity to carefully examine why they were created in the first place and to thoroughly consider whether or not they’re delivering the goods. And if they’re not, to reimagine and redefine them to pave the way for a better connection with, and relevance to, the audiences of today and tomorrow.
This is also a chance to leverage cultural caché to help forge new partnerships and collaborations with other institutions, both public and private. It is a chance to explore how spaces, collections, and exhibits can be better used to foster immersive experiences that connect and elevate their current audience and attract a brand-new contingent of museum-goers. This is a chance to help young people create memories that matter and interactions that help them to better understand their place in the world, bringing them a sense of discovery and delight.
All this in no way means we no longer need museums and other cultural institutions. It just means we no longer need them to exist exclusively as they did in the past. Some museums we’ve visited seem to have already gotten the memo. But there is no one path for executing on this new reality correctly. We invite you to follow along as we explore the various ways in which museums are stepping up to the plate, reimagining their mission and vision, and bringing it all to life.