Museums and Cultural Institutions in the 21st Century

Last night, I attended an Arts Forum lecture at the TimesCenter in Manhattan sponsored by the Alliance for the Arts. The speaker was Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gave a very interesting talk that covered a lot of topics.

Here are some key points that stood out for me.

1. Focus on permanent collections in addition to the reliance on blockbuster exhibitions. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes, repurposing what you already have might prove to be fresh and valuable.  Theater companies, for example, can offer a lot more than just the next big musical.

2. Survey visitors to determine how they experience the museum/institution (everything from on-site habits to off-site perceptions). It’s essential to have reliable visitor demographics and know their visiting habits, there likes and dislikes. This will not only help give regular visitors "more of what they want," it will also help identify potential new (and underserved) audiences.

3. Use interactive interpretation in exhibits (touch screen monitors, audio components for tours, etc.) Mr. Campbell is even investigating creating a GPS application for smart phones or onsite kiosks that will navigate visitors through the various galleries and attractions of the enormous museum. A Navigation App sounds like a very exciting and powerful tool to highlight key attractions throughout the labyrinthine site and get visitors where they need to go. Mr. Campbell, however, did not mention any specific company or software that they are using or reviewing.

4. Online presence is very important. The Met's Web site, which attracts millions of visitors worldwide, is considered part of the visitor experience, and they are making it a priority to digitize their collection (scans, photographs, videos) and "make all of it available online." Mr. Campbell thinks the online and onsite experiences are different and will not cannibalize each other, but rather complement each other. The Web will drive more visitors to the brick-and-mortar museum, and on-site visitors will go online to enhance their experience.

Questions I had that I did not get to ask Mr. Campbell were:

How much of his collection still remains to be digitized?

What challenges are being faced by his institution as it endeavors to make the entirety of its collections available online?

How are they addressing digital asset management?

I’m so glad that New York is a cultural mecca. As the Alliance for the Arts reports:

“The arts in New York City annually generate:

o $21 billion economic impact

o 160,000 jobs

o 26 million nonprofit arts visitors

o 2 million student visitors to cultural institutions

Culture means more jobs, stronger communities, more diversity, and better schools.”

Take advantage of the art and culture opportunities available in your area, and continue to support them. Whenever we face fiscal crises, it seems that the arts are the first thing that politicians target for budget cuts. It is vital to recognize their importance and continuing relevance to our culture and economy.