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Future of Museums

Source: Smithsonian Institution

Daniel Spock, ‘Flux or the New Normal? Museum Exhibitions in the Post-Recession Reality’, Exhibitionist, Fall 2012

Where Are Exhibition Programs Headed in the New Economy? The Jury Is Out.

In 2008, the bubble burst. Overnight, the nation and the world were plunged into economic chaos. The economy shed trillions of dollars of value, and millions of people were pushed into unemployment. How have museums and their exhibition programs weathered the economic storm? Have we reached a new stable state or is the change process still underway? And if it is still underway, where do we think it will lead us?

Can Rapidly Changing Exhibitions Be Sustained?

While a large proportion (40%) of U.S. museums are free, a great number rely very heavily on gate and sales revenue generated by rapidly changing and aggressively marketed exhibitions. The dilemma here isn’t complicated. Thesmuseums have been measuring their effectiveness largely by the attendance they are able to generate, but generating that attendance isn’t cheap. The attendance “bounce” a new exhibition produces lasts only a few months. To produce a succession of rapidly changing exhibitions with broad appeal can be done in two ways: bring in traveling blockbusters, or try to make an equally appealing exhibit in-house. A traditional in-house exhibition at the level of quality necessary to attract a wide audience might take years and millions of dollars to produce. Rental and other fees for blockbusters normally run to six figures: ostensibly a savings over in-house produced exhibits. But a museum must string blockbusters together in a ceaseless line of offerings to keep attendance high, negating some of the putative dollar value when compared to more permanent exhibits. Necessary marketing can easily add hundreds of thousands to the cost; you have to spend money to make money.

This predicament has caused an especially acute problem for science centers where relatively high admission fees—combined with a heavy reliance upon them for fiscal solvency—have long been a fixture of the business model. The economic pressures of the recession brought this into relief, but the crisis has actually been brewing for some time. ASTC reports that aggregate attendance for science centers actually declined 24% between January 2006 and July 2011 (Seidel, 2011). An evaluator at a large urban science center recently told me that the steep decline in attendance at her museum since 2008 is almost entirely due to a decline in visitors traveling great distances to see traveling blockbusters. The rising cost of travel in the new atmosphere of austerity is proving an obstacle to the traditional family excursion.

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