Musings on museums

Dateline: Chicago. The City Council approved the construction of a subterranean building in Grant Park Wednesday, complete with a liquor license. The Mayor and two-thirds of the aldermen supported it “on behalf of the children,” a reference to the building’s presumptive initial user: the Chicago Children’s Museum. The move may be challenged in court, and they might even lose, but the clout was lined up heavy.

The Children’s Museum is leaving the State of Illinois’ number 1 tourist attraction, Navy Pier, for the location. A very curious decision for an organization that is facing a dropoff in its target age group and still needs to raise at least half of the $100 million construction cost.

Actually, it is only a curious decision if you follow the spurious “for the children” argument. If you spend $100 million building a potential convention/meeting/banquet facility in Grant Park, you can recoup your costs quite simply by a sale. When the museum fails, they sell the facility to McCormick Place, for example, and recoup their investment. Now the scenario makes sense.

Speaking of failed museums, the National Trust’s latest issue of Forum Journal is devoted to the challenge of the historic house museum, an institution in decline for most of this century. Two articles deserve special mention: the first by Trust staffer Max van Balgooy and the second by John and Anita Durel. Van Balgooy pierces a few presuppositions about the decline of the house museum. First, he decried our reliance on quantitative measures like number of visitors each site receives, noting that while two-thirds of National Trust sites saw drops in attendance over the last five years, the other third saw an increase, not attributable to differences in funding, locations, staffing or other conditions. Not only that, but house museums that run at a deficit are more likely to be organizations with assets over $500,000. Van Balgooy suggested moving away from quantity and toward qualitative measures, a position supported by the Durels, who brilliantly challenge the basic tourism model.

For a century, house museums were conceived as tourist sites, and the operators of those museums focused on typical issues of curation and interpretation. We have long recognized the first fallacy of interpretation that is static and have begun innovative programming for diverse audiences. But now we have to come to terms with a new reality – tourism is for the birds. A tourist visits, maybe buys a book or a scarf or a refrigerator magnet, and then goes away. For most sites, that is it. The Durels basically say: bad business model. Forget the tourists. You want MEMBERS – people invested in the place. A generation of Baby Boomers is going into a very active retirement, pursuing hobbies, avocations and passions, and if historic sites can make themselves the location for those activities, they will thrive.

You see, a member has a vested interest in a place. It has ALWAYS been difficult to run a house museum based on a few thousand visitors a year. Take a look at the economics: Let’s say it costs $150,000 a year to run your house museum. You get 15,000 visitors at $10 each and you can just make it. You get 12,000 one year and you are in deficit. You get 8,000 and you are in crisis. My personal home costs $50,000 a year to own and operate. Yet it has only two paying customers. That’s the key right there: it ain’t the NUMBER of visitors, it is the QUALITY of their engagement. Better to have 20 good people showing up every month than a 100 who come once and only once.

Historic sites need to be community centers; they need to be constantly changing and they need to be always engaging the next generation – who may well decide that historic buildings are much more valuable than children’s museums.

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