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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