Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Museums and the Communication of Value

Somewhat delayed by unexpected events including Sandy, I'll be publishing a series of blog posts inspired by the proceedings at the Salzburg Global Forum, an annual leadership seminar for 50 young nonprofit leaders in the arts organized by National Arts Strategies. Bloggers have been asked to address a series of questions facing the nonprofit arts world similar to those being considered in Salzburg.

Museums and the Communication of Value

In Greek mythology, the muses were a source of inspiration for artists. They served as an anthropomorphic symbol of that indefinable, unknowable spark that lives inside the human spirit, pushing it to do more, to expand beyond its own skin and its own immediate needs. An acquaintance once described art to me as anything that steps beyond the strict necessity of survival. We need to eat, but we do not need five star pastry chefs; we need to clothe ourselves, but we do not need high fashion.

Museums, then are a place for that unknowable spark to live. Museum – a place of the muses. A good museum serves as a sort of springboard, whatever its topic. It provides the canvas and the tools for inspiration. A natural history museum provides the visitor with displays and facts and invites him to then make connections and imagine the larger world that lays behind those displays.

Value is always a fungible concept, and thus investigating it should take this quality into account. If a museum is a springboard, a place for the muses, then value will hinge on an individual experience of revelation. An object, a label, the particular juxtaposition of two ideas – all these things can inspire and spark.

Communicating that value is an endlessly fickle proposition. Describing it too abstractly makes it sound useless; describing it too specifically leads to false expectations. The end result of inquiry is different for every individual as well. A spark of inspiration can transform into a willingness to perform a kind act, or to take up art, or to advocate for the environment, or simply an increased awareness on a particular subject. Measuring it is equally difficult; one person's lifechanging event might not equal the impact of another person's brief curiosity, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, communicating value is obviously absolutely essential to the survival of museums in particular and arts organizations in general. In a world in which everything must be proven of long-term use, and everything must lead to the obvious and calculated benefit of one's situation, sometimes the cruder explanations of value are the most logical ones. An outdoor museum will allow kids to use up energy, attending an exhibit opening will provide the right conversation fodder for a party, a science museum demonstration will fill a child's extra credit requirement: all of these are equally valid reasons to visit a museum, and of immediate use when luring in visitors. But ultimately none are the driving value behind a museum experience.

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