Saturday, June 13, 2009

Museums In The Middle

I'm worried about museums. Specifically "museums in the middle."

As will come as no news flash to intrepid ExhibiTricks readers, the wretched economy is playing havoc with the museum biz (and all the adjunct players like designers, fabricators, architects, etc. who work with museums.) Just the other day, Design Craftsmen announced they were closing up shop after 40 years.

But this posting is about "museums in the middle" as in middle of the bell curve.

Not BIG museums like those that form The Smithsonian, or MOMA --- these battleships will keep moving in the same direction even if you cut their engines tomorrow. To borrow a phrase, these iconic institutions are simply "too big to fail."

Nor am I concerned about many smaller museums, the ones that didn't overbuild, the quirky little gems that bask in the love of their respective communities --- they've always lived by their wits, rather than endowments or visitor attendance projections, and will continue to do so, even if their forms and formats change somewhat.

No, I'm worried about the mass of mid-sized, perfectly nice, but not exceptional, museums who bought into the notions that the only way to get better was to grow bigger, or to jump onto the traveling exhibits treadmill to boost visitation statistics. When the donor and governmental money was freer-flowing it seemed like every building expansion, or every dodgy ploy to boost attendance, was a smart bet.

But now in the midst of this recession/depression/whatever these notions have become largely unsustainable --- and thus comes the reduction in staff, the reduction in hours, the reduction in, let's be honest, quality and service to the public.

So what happens now? What's the best way to use this time to rethink and reshape our current museums? I'm worried that many museums --- traditionally risk-averse, will just shrink their operational footprint and wait until things "get better."

Rather than just waiting, how can we thoughtfully, and boldly, use this time to make things better now?

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