Should Museum Visitors be Consumers?

I think the answer to this question is yes. No, not just yes, but YES! I was extremely surprised by our discussion in class today to hear how negatively people were looking at business models/terminology being applied to museum practices and discussion. I know there are a lot bad ethos that surround the idea of consumerism, but this type of model is inherently user-empowering, especially compared with the traditional museum model. I, as a consumer wield the power of choice when I deal with businesses. I want, or perhaps need a toaster. I go to several stores and choose to purchase a toaster based upon many factors including quality, my interactions with sales service, promises of future assistence if my toaster breaks down, etc. If I am unsatisfied with any of these factors I get to choose not to spend my money there. Because of this choice businesses cater to me. They do research to anticipate my needs, they provide special incentives to get me to buy their toaster, they create new and improved toasters regularly to continue to be competitive for my business. They need my business and the business of thousands of other customers to survive. And if they don’t listen to me and my thousands of other friends, they fail.

This may seem like an over simplification, but compare this customer-centered business model to how museums function (especially historically). As a visitor to a museum I certainly have the choice to go there or not, and yes, the museum will benefit from my choosing them over another venue. Yet, in a world where museums get an disproportionately large chunk of their operating expenses from unearned (and as I read it, un-consumer driven) funds, my power as a consumer dwindles. Choices in museum programming and content are made not necessarily because of what I want or need, but because of the nebulous mission statement, staff interests, or higher-ranking stakeholder whims. Mission becomes central and consumers are relegated to the position of peripherally important “visitors” (aka aliens, outsiders). The obligatory comment cards in the museum lobby are nothing compared to the millions of dollars of R&D other companies are pouring into understanding and adapting to their consumer’s needs and wants. Sure, museums are engaging in audience research. Great! But why are they engaging in audience research? To fulfill the requirements of a granting agency that is only perhaps marginally related to the actual people that come through the doors? I guess what I am trying to argue is that if the museum does not provide a quality service to their visitors, they don’t pay the same types of consequences that business do and my power as a consumer dwindles. As my power dwindles, the museum’s increases and we see what many people have been arguing about as the hegemony of curator/institutional voice in museums.

I think museums should think more about their visitors as consumers and appropriate thinking from the business world to inform the efficiency and accountability of the practices. This does not necessarily mean changing everything a museum does to a bottom line. Rather, appropriating business tools to think more concretely about practices, the same way museums and non-profits have been appropriating business world tools like “mission statements” and “vision statements.”

In some ways I think this appropriation has already happened. Museums are looking more and more at museums as transforming from, to borrow from an article from Stephan Weil we had to read in another class last week, “Being about something to being for somebody” (Here is article)
He argues (often in contradiction to my arguments above) that museums since the end of world war II have exploded population-wise and that there are not enough resources to sustain them, forcing museums to rely more and more upon what he calls “box office income” and limited support of corporations and granting agencies. This, Weil argues, makes them more dependent upon “consumers” and more interested in what consumers want (as well as a lot of other things!). He mitigates the effect of the “business language,” though, away from potentially troubling “buying and selling” model and more towards a pr angle, which might be easier to swallow in a non-profit setting.

It seems clear, at the most elementary level, that the greater degree to which a museum must rely for some portion of its support on “box office” income — not merely entrance fees but also the related funds to be derived from shop sales and other auxiliary activities–the greater will be its focus on making itself attractive to visitors. Likewise, the greater the extent to which a museum might seek corporate funding–particularly for its program activities–the more important will be that museum’s ability to assure prospective sponsors that its programs will attract a wide audience…The consequence is that museums almost everywhere have, in essence, shifted from a “selling” mode to a “marketing” one. In the selling mode, their efforts were concentrated on convincing the public to “buy” their traditional offerings. In the marketing mode, their starting point instead is the public’s own needs and interests, and their efforts are concentrated on first trying to discover and then attempting to satisfy those public needs and interests.

-Stephan E. Weil “From Being about Something to Being For Somebody”

So, the point I am trying (unfortunately very verbosely) to make is that I think the business perspective put forth in the Groundswell text is extremely valuable to museums in helping them to become consumer/visitor relevant.