Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thank You, NPR

museum, NPR, maria mortati, gyroscope inc Last Monday, NPR began a series on museums, and given the current financial crisis*, I just have to say THANK YOU. The first edition starred the heavies: Ford Bell- President of AAM, Philipe de Montibello- iconic director of the Met, and Charles Willson Peale's Cabinet of Curiosities- iconic museum "built around the desire to document the history of discovery in the new world". For those of you that missed the heaviest hitter, here it is:
"If you add up the attendance for every major-league baseball, basketball, football and hockey game this year, the combined total will come to about 140 million people. That's a big number, but it's barely a fraction of the number of people who will visit American museums this year. Museums are big business, attracting... 850 million people annually"
Wow. I mean, we spend a considerable about of hand wringing on attendance and bugets. Does this mean it's paying off? I think it some way it must. The comments on the first story are articulate, and cover plugs for Visual Thinking Strategies to small house museums. Some pro, some con. This one was pretty sweet:
"For every multi-milllion dollar new museum building, there are hundreds of small house and history museums that care for and display items of local significance. They are under-staffed and under-funded but fill an important niche in many places as community centers, meeting spaces and adjunct school classrooms. Before slamming museums as elitist or unnecessary, think about your community without a repository for its history, culture and art." - Peter Wisbey
The second edition profiled Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts who has a museum dream life. The comments were predictable: " Mr. Nyerges is not the typical museum director in America" (Scott Wands). Yes, his story is exceptional- but part of the reason we don't take home the big bucks is a trade-off- we do get to do interesting work, with topics that stretch and grow us daily. I think there are several more shows coming, and like a CNET review, I'll wait til the end to see what the sum is. This series has got me looking for good museum-related podcasts and radio shows. If you know of any, feel free to send them my way: maria [at] gyroscopeinc [dot] com. Thanks. * For institutions facing tough times, the AAM has posted some guidelines on their site here.


Terry said...

Hi, Maria ... this was a great article and like you said, lots of positives. There were a couple of interesting comments on the NPR website, though ... definitely presenting more food for thought -- for example, one person wrote "it (the article) fails to note that museums collect that which has been lost and recount the victor's version of history." I have to admit that I bristled a bit at AAM's head Ford Bell's quote that "In the U.S., we had a new continent we were exploring and opening up and discovering, and that brought this realization of all the tremendously diverse life forms that were out there." Exactly WHO is "we"? I think that's where museums run the risk of elitism -- and surely we're beyond the "discovering America" fantasy and realize that vibrant, complex civilizations existed on this continent long before the Europeans arrived. Who knows, maybe one of the favorite hang-outs at Cahokia was the local museum! We have an exciting opportunity to tell a different story in our museums today -- let's take that opportunity.

Maria Mortati said...

Hi Terry,

Yes, you are right! There were some good comments which articulated the dilemma that collections museums have been coping with in the last 20 or so years. I think that the fact that you are thinking about the "who is we" speaks to the power of museums ability to continuously put life in context for people, and raise really great questions such as yours. My sense is that now more than ever museums are open to telling different stories in their halls. However, it's often the smaller institutions and art world that lead the way ...as always.

I wrote the post because I felt that against the backdrop of the financial news (which was the context in which I heard it), it is a great thing that NPR is doing for us. Guess in this case I'm an "any publicity is good publicity" proponent.