Sunday, December 6, 2009

What Does The Discovery - Times Square Exposition Mean For Museums?

The Discovery - Times Square Exposition (Discovery TSX) is a big honking display center right in (as the name implies) Times Square in New York City.  So what are they showing in there --- exhibits and displays related to the shows from The Discovery Network shows like Sharks, or blowing up things with the Mythbusters?

In a word, no.  The shows that Discovery TSX has been rolling in since its opening are the very same shows (Titanic, King Tut, Lucy's Legacy, DaVinci's Workshop) that museums have been trying to make hay from.  Discovery TSX also features a cafĂ© with large seating area and two stores --- The Discovery Store and The New York Times Store (the building once housed The New York Times printing presses.) Discovery TSX also offers special event rental spaces.  I'm sure if the Discovery TSX folks could have figured out a way to stick an IMAX theatre in there without violating contractual obligations with existing big-theatre venues in Manhattan they would have done that as well.

So what does this all mean for museums?  I'd say its pretty scary when a juggernaut like The Discovery Network starts making a grab for the high-profile, high-margin aspects (like traveling exhibitions, retail, food service, and special events rentals) that museums find themselves using to support their "less profitable" aspects (like educational programming, collections management, and exhibition research.) And Discovery TSX gets all the monetary goodies, and the reflected prestige of running a "museum-like" operation, without all the messy details of context and pesky curators and exhibit developers running around.

Well, you might be saying, I can see that a Times Square outpost by The Discovery Network might be problematic for nearby museums like the New York Hall of Science, or The Liberty Science Center, or even the American Museum of Natural History, but what's the downside for a museum outside the greater New York metropolitan area?

To that question, I'll finish up with two points to ponder:

1) If The Discovery Network manages to make their Discovery TSX venue a profitable proposition (perhaps a big "if") might they not set their sights on L.A., Chicago, or London next?

2) Have we in the museum business lost focus on our core principles (like collections, education, and exhibit development) and become mere "display centers" in search of the fast dollar? And have we also inadvertently trained an audience of Pavlov's dogs to respond only to new, shiny, traveling shows while ignoring the rest of our museums?

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  1. As much as I may not like the premise and content of the " Discovery" venue this sort of promotional space might serve as a lesson or two for museum developers.
    Fear of commercialism outselling education is just a symptom that designers need to find compelling methods to engage visitors.
    The location and money behinds it is something that is difficult to compete with, but how do you think the NY Hall of Science would do in that location? Time will tell. Sony Metreon failed in a prime S. Fancisco location.
    In a word,it's all good, the more the merrier.

  2. @zunny

    Fair points all --- however one thing that concerns me is what happens when for-profit media companies really start competing for the SAME traveling exhibitions with non-profit museums.

    Will it really be all good then?

  3. There have been opportunists in competition with others in every field. The battle is seldom "fair" and even less seldom "good" for the broader market over time. There is a rush "to the bottom" that damages quality and services over price and short-sightedness almost every time. It is rare that an industry can survive a broad scale decline such as this for very long.

    What is needed most, as a countermeasure, is to cultivate a broad, avid following for high value features that are not easily cheapened. In the computer design and software field Apple has managed to maintain significant market share against the largest and toughest competition using this strategy for several decades. Of course, the advertising revenue-addicted media refers to each successful effort as a miracle but it's really a long-term strategy which has cultivated and nourished an entire culture of fervent customers and Apple's long term success. Similar results are being achieved by free or open source software, plus high value consulting and customization for numerous "open source" product lines like Linux software and Red Hat consulting.

    Museums will need to do there own adaption to the significant sea change that Paul has correctly identified in their field. It won't be easy, but it will stimulate some real creativity for exhibit developers and rest of museum community.

  4. In related news: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in NYC just announced it is closing after just one year:

  5. Paul

    Well can you park at Times Square for cheap? That is sort of a glib way of saying currently I don't think this offering is engaging that much of the "community," yet!

    We shall see. But agree with you that wherever one stands on exhibitions in museums (in particular science) there are lessons to be learned.