Temples of delight or feeding the culture vultures?

Two seemingly disparate articles showed up in my news feed over the weekend – both by The Economist, both on the future of museums.

The first, Temples of Delight, reports on visitation trends and the ways museum are re-inventing themselves as “… pits of popular debate and places where children go for sleepovers. They are no longer places where people look on in awe but where they learn and argue, as they would at universities or art schools”. The article goes on to quote attendance figures that demonstrate, for the most part, a global increase in museum visiting:

“The statistics suggest that these new-look museums are doing something right. Globally, numbers have burgeoned from around 23,000 two decades ago to at least 55,000 now. In 2012 American museums received 850m visitors, says the American Alliance of Museums. That is more than all the big-league sporting events and theme parks combined. In England over half the adult population visited a museum or gallery in the past year, the highest share since the government began collecting such statistics in 2005. In Sweden three out of four adults go to a museum at least once a year (though not all Europeans are equally keen). The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most popular museum, had 10m visitors last year, 1m more than in 2011.”

The second, Feeding the culture-vultures, asks “What museums must do to satisfy an increasingly demanding public?”. Their answer is “To keep the public coming and ensure their own survival, museums need to try much harder to give their visitors what they want”. Through a few examples, the article points out that museums that address issues relating to “… man’s [sic] common humanity—captures the public imagination. Museums which can do that still have a bright future.”

A resonating point for me with the Temple article is the observation that “… modern visitors like being entertained, and are likely to drift away unless museums can connect with them both intellectually and emotionally.” I found the same in my doctoral study, Museum Visitors and Learning Identities – visitors want social experiences that combine entertainment and learning, while relating to them on a personal level.

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