Hybrids, commercialisation, and academic Anglo-Saxon

Yesterday I attended a one day national conference on ‘The Hybrid Museum’, arranged by the Danish consortium for museum research, to address these issues:

In recent years, the boundaries between institutions of informal learning have become increasingly diffuse. Hybrid forms have appeared through the dissociation and recombination of exhibit genres, audience perspectives, curatorial practices, sponsorship opportunities, managerial competencies, organisational structures, and societal relations, leading ultimately to the genesis of the Hybrid Museum. What are the consequences of this for present-day museums, experience centres, and science centres? How can research be adapted to account for this tendency? How will museums further public engagement in the years to come?

The morning session included some very interesting presentations by prof. Gayle McPherson (University of West Scotland) on the digital visitor experience, and associate prof. Katja Lindqvist (Lund University) on taking a service management perspective on the museum. The hybrid addressed here was thus mainly the one of public service cultural institutions with/as commercial enterprises.

Based on her extensive research into changing museums policies in the UK over the last three decades, McPherson argued that ‘education and entertainment are no longer the uneasy bedfellows they used to be’, and that by embracing digital engagement and working cleverly with commercial strategies, museums could offer better experiences for ‘museum consumers’, thereby also meeting policy goals. She’s right, of course, but I couldn’t help asking if, by the logic of commercial entrepreneurship, museums might not risk losing their USP (unique selling point) if they come to resemble commercial enterprises too much?

This blurring of identities also surfaced in my first workshop with Designmuseum Denmark, in which one of the curators rhetorically asked ‘What is the church of the day, and who is the preacher of the day? Where is today’s museum and where is today’s shopping experience?‘ (Hvad er dagens kirke, og hvem er dagens præst? Hvor er dagens museum og hvor er dagens shoppingoplevelse?). Similarly, I found a strong resemblance between the Shoe Obsession exhibition at the Museum at FIT and the shoe department of the (exhibition sponsor) Saks Fifth Avenue, where the commercial shoe display emulated a museum style, while the museum unabashedly showcased commercial products currently on sale. Shopping may be a favorite past-time in the 21st century, but will this development just continue ad infinitum, or might we see a backlash against commercial culture where museums could become the ‘new black’ havens of material rather than materialistic culture? (Aren’t we already seeing the dawn of this political shift, or am I just a dreamer?)

Katja Lindqvist, who came to museum studies from an MBA background, had some interesting things to say about the mixed economy model of modern day museum, where public funding and sales profit together form the basis of museum management. While museums can – and have to – learn a lot from commercial enterprises, she also cautioned awareness of some of the assumptions behind popular business models which may not be applicable in a museum context, such as economies of scale or strict for-profit thinking. She also pointed out some of the effects of recent public sector reforms on museums, such as growing ‘projectification’ and a looming tendency to manage for audit resulting from more formal control and the need to constantly assert the institution’s relevance for society. Both scholars have published some interesting articles in Museum management and curatorship, which I will be sure to look up.

To my regret, I’d missed out on an affiliated PhD course the previous day, having overlooked this option on the website. Not that I’m short on ECTS points, but it would have been an interesting forum for presenting and discussing some of the issues I wish to address. Instead, I plunged into the debate in yesterday’s workshop on the impact of the concept of the hybrid museum on museums’ organisation and self-image, but left feeling unsure if I’d missed the mark a bit, raising the wrong kind of questions for this context or just explaining the points I was trying to make badly. However, the way that my suggestions were dismissed by McPherson (it’s not that I don’t get that publicly funded institutions have public obligations, it’s just that I’m sometimes a bit sceptic when it comes to getting with the program. In my book, questioning universal assumptions is one of the finer tasks of academia) gave me some food for thought about challenges in international discussions about museum issues.

For instance, my remark about how the strong focus on initiatives for engaging children might cause museums to overlook the commercial potential of and inadequately service the older audience they already have (by example, the national museum of art last year curated a fine exhibition theme about death aimed at children, but wouldn’t it also be interesting and relevant to curate the same topic for, or in collaboration with, the elderly?!) somehow morphed into a discussion about special events for museum friends and patrons. But the needs and interest of the stereotypical Danish museum-goer, a fifty-something female teacher, is not necessarily compatible to those of the equally stereotypical lady-who-lunches who supports the upkeep of an institution like the Met. Likewise, the circumstances in the US, the UK and in Scandinavia or continental Europe are not identical. We may be heading more and more towards a neo-liberal model of the welfare state, but we also still have other strands to our cultural DNA, and, I believe, still have the political right to question whether we want to model ourselves on the institutional changes brought on by post-Thatcher/ New Labour ideals or American trust fund sponsorships. (The omission of Asia, Africa and South America here is deliberate, as it is a different point I’m getting to, however, the general overlooking of non-western perspectives in this debate is indeed significant).

And yet we are constantly looking west when trying to understand the state and future of museums, to the great institutions and prominent museologists in America, Canada, England and Australia (not west, I know, but you get my drift). Myself very much included, because I, like most of my peers, have come to rely almost solely on the English language publications that I can confidently read. I used to read German and struggle through French (as this is part of standard education in Denmark, not because I was some whizz kid), but must admit that I very rarely bother these days. Even articles in the other Scandinavian languages I tend to pass over, heck, I’m not even up with the writings of my fellow Danes. Unless they have published in English. A brief conversation with senior museologist Ane Hejlskov Larsen, who could tell me that the flourishing tradition for museology in former Eastern Europe used to have a greater influence on the Nordic museum thinking, confirmed that I am alone in leaning heavily on the Anglo-american sources for inspiration and insights; this is a general trend. So what good points might we be missing out on, what ‘truths’ remain unquestioned when we’re all reading from the same script, listening to the same gospel?

My concern for academia here of course goes well beyond the field of museum studies, and ties in with a general shift towards an English-centric and Anglo-Saxon tradition of scientific publication (which again is linked to the publish-or-perish culture of new public management, I presume, but I’m admittedly a little out my depth here. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the downfalls of trying to be an academic in a second language, not only with regards to my own work, but what it will mean for the cognitive processes and academic prospects of future generations of scholars).

I know better than to try to tackle these meta level conundrums in my current project. But my concerns about how this narrow view affects the academic field of museum studies and, more importantly, the evolution of museums, is perhaps an issue to pursue in a post-doc project? In fact, it would make a lot of sense to carry out such a project at my current institution, the Royal School of Library and Information Studies, and team up with bibliometricians and cultural policy researchers. Perhaps I’m turning into an information scholar after all?

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In reply to tweet from Prof. McPherson

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 13.29.33

I’m not trying to pick a fight, so please read this as a respectful clarification. I just feel badly misquoted – perhaps due to the exceedingly poor audio conditions at yesterday’s event – and given that I responded to professor McPherson’s tweet, I feel I now owe an elaboration, even though she luckily doesn’t seem further affronted. (added note: perhaps she just never saw my reply, or simply hasn’t been interested in hearing my response.)

As explained in the above post, my initial point was about not forgetting the value and needs of the existing museum audience. I was here referring to the typical museum goer, who, in the Danish demography-oriented research is described as a 50+ year old female teacher, i.e. educated middle class, but often somewhat dismissively referred to as a ‘hattedame’ (lit. ‘hat lady’). As the female educated middle class is also overrepresented in the museum professions, it is often seen as problematic that museums are only catering to their own kind. I strongly agree that museums need to be inclusive rather than elitist, but I don’t think that gives reason to disregard the visitors who enjoy the institutions.

When the term ‘hattedamer’ was subsequently translated for the benefit of the international participants in yesterday’s discussion, it was described as ‘ladies who lunch’ (i.e. upper class), which led into a discussion about the special events for friends and patrons at major American museums. I therefore found it necessary to differentiate between the stereotype of the retired teacher and the stereotype of the lady who lunches, whom I blunty described as a woman who had married into money. I apologised then, and apologise again for this crass and politically incorrect stereotype, but it wasn’t really the time or place to go into details – the point was to make an on the fly comprehensible distinction between the two groups. 

As for children in museums, I remember making the point that the current middle aged museum goers – including both of the above groups – had come to be interested in museums even if perhaps the museums of their childhood were not making special arrangements for children. The argument about needing to grow the next generation of museum goers does in other words not necessarily imply making special interactives for children, even though that is how it is often translated. Another point I made later about how activities tailored for one group could potentially collide with interests of other visitors – where I quoted one of my students for saying that sometimes, the presence of ‘someone glueing in the corner’ could be a distraction. This utterance came from a young person, and was addressing participatory activities in general, not activities for children in particular. 

I know I can get carried off in a debate. I know I still have a lot to learn about museums and academia and, well, life, and that too often I stick out my neck in unfortunate ways. We may disagree on certain aspects of museum strategies, but I did not mean to be brash and offensive. And to the best of my memory (then of course, I could simply be blind to my own misconceptions), I wasn’t, as it was another point entirely I was trying to make, but which apparently didn’t come across clearly and was therefore condensed into a very different argument. Hence this correction.

With the very best regards,
Rikke

… and then:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 15.34.53

 

: )

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