What Happened to the Museum?


Australian Museum

I was one of those kids who loved going to museums. There was one in Sydney called The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences—everything there moved to the new Powerhouse Museum in 1988—that was full of the most fantastic exhibits; strange machines and engines, with buttons you could press to make them work, a machine that played noughts-and-crosses, and of course an Egyptian mummy or two (I was obsessed with archaeology back then).

The other great museum in Sydney was the Australian Museum, a big old building next to Hyde Park full of the most fascinating stuff. There were upstairs galleries, their walls lined with thousands and thousands of specimens of creatures; slightly moth-eaten life-size diaramas (one of early man confronting a sabertooth tiger) in the stairwells, and a skeleton room that featured a skeleton man riding a skeleton horse.

I spent many, many hours wandering these places, and even then, one of the things I loved about them was the feeling of antiquity, not only of the exhibits, but of the buildings themselves. There was an old English stuffiness about the Australian Museum especially. You went there to escape the noise and bustle of the busy streets outside; to go somewhere cool and quiet and wander among the glass cases, perhaps casting a cursory eye over them, or perhaps immersing yourself in one small field of study for a few hours, reading every placard and studying every object in that field.

I hadn’t been to the Australian Museum for a while; perhaps for the occasional disappointing exhibit. Not only have I been around the world a couple of times since those early days, and seen places like the British Museum and the Louvre, but the shows always seemed so low-budget and thrown together on a shoestring. A symptom, perhaps, of the Australian obsession with sport, which wallows in bountiful corporate sponsorship, while our sciences and arts continue to struggle.

So my recent visit came as a shock, because the Australian Museum has completely transformed itself into a children’s creche. It’s a noisy, frantic place full of screaming, running children and bored parents with prams. Most of the exhibits seem to have disappeared—the upper galleries are empty—to be replaced by temporary walls, basic text in big easy-to-read fonts, bright colours and jigsaw puzzles and toys scattered around the floor.

Now I understand why the Museum has gone this route—they need money. I suspect it happened around the time they changed the logo from something simple and elegant to something that looks like it belongs in a children’s picture book. I also understand that kids need interactive exhibits these days; that the games and movable wall tiles are just extensions of the buttons I used to push in the old science museum.

But what happened to the museum? What happened to the place you could go to learn something? Where does the kind of kid that I was—the kind of kid that actually likes the fact that they’re in an adult place of learning that’s quiet and serious, and is mentally stimulated and made curious and challenged by that kind of atmosphere—where does that kind of kid go? Because today’s museum is a noisy playground just like every other noisy playground. And I can tell you, that’s exactly how most of the kids there were treating it.

I guess the museum has to make money like any other business these days. And they’re pursuing that agenda pretty ruthlessly it seems, with things like two hour ‘backstage’ tours at $130 per person, or children’s Halloween parties at $75 A kid. Something has to fund the research going on behind the scenes. It just seems a shame that the whole quality of the museum seems to have become so kid-focussed. Perhaps the latest research says you have to entertain the kid before he or she learns anything.

Maybe that’s how kids are educated these days. But if I look back and remember the kinds of child I was, who enjoyed the hushed, rarified atmosphere of learning in those old museum halls, I wouldn’t have learnt anything if the museum was like the playground it is today.

Unfortunately, there’s certainly no reason for me to go there as an adult with no kids.

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hugh
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 17:17:29

    Agreed, Pete. I think the fundamental error has been for museums to think they have to provide a hyped-up experience that competes with computer games and fast-cut TV.

    Instead, I suspect, it would be better to provide a completely different experience, more along the lines of the hush and awe and weight of learning that you speak of.

    To do otherwise is to trivialise it for everyone, including those who could have been inspired to become deeply fascinated by our universe of wonders.

    • universalhead
      Nov 08, 2010 @ 14:00:04

      Another thing that always frustrates me is hearing adults get very obvious facts completely wrong when they describe them to their children, because they’ve just cast a cursory glance over some placard without any real interest. Seriously, many of the adults there were just treating the Museum as a day care centre.

  2. TTears of Envy
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 19:52:26

    I too lament the decline of the museum-for-adults. However, I also realise that they must make money to survive and are therefore make the economically sensible decision of going for the lowest common denominator. Fortunately here in the UK there are remaining examples of “traditional” musuems. The Ox-bridge lot and then the Hunterian are good. With the resurgence of interest in Victoriana we are also seeing the return of the cabinet of curiosities too, with little pop-up exhibitions occurring more frequently.

    I guess what I am saying is; move to the UK!!!

    • universalhead
      Nov 08, 2010 @ 13:50:58

      Damn good idea Tammy … as soon as we can afford it! So many fantastic museums in London and the UK. Sir John Soane’s Museum is one I always mean to visit, for example.

  3. Andrew
    Nov 10, 2010 @ 15:00:52

    As some one working in the industry, I understand the concerns raised here. However, before coming down too hard on a musuem like the Australian, consider that the people making the changes are trying balance on a very thin strand of wire. They must try to live up to their stated mission of education and research, whilst achieving often demanding quotas in terms of visitors or turnover. Meaning they have to attract visitors, and lots of them. One of the most cost effective markets to target is the family – they turn up with four or more people and will probably buy something at both the cafe and gift shop. If you want to ensure some sort of return on your marketing then the family is where its at.

    But families won’t come if they don’t like what you’ve got on offer. So in trying to attract families with kid friendly displays and bright colours, some institutions go too far (as you or I might measure it) but perhaps in their own way of thinking they haven’t gone far enough. How many more people are coming through the door? Is a 15% increase enough? Will heads roll if they can’t reach their targets?

    If society is becoming one in which bored parents use museums as cheap alternatives to the movies, then a public institution has to cater to that (even if only in part) or it will not be fulfilling its duties.

    • universalhead
      Nov 10, 2010 @ 15:35:22

      Thanks for your comments Andrew, and it’s good to hear from someone working on the front line of the issue. I completely understand your points, and yet … must everything be driven by marketing? Isn’t it possible that an innovative, original and maybe even risky approach might actually drive change for the better, instead of inexorably down to the lowest common denominator?

      Marketing is used as the justification for everything these days, but I always feel that marketing takes the spark and fire out of everything. How many real, lasting, important initiatives have been driven by it? I tend to think that when something is dictated by focus groups and surveys, the inspiration goes down, the mediocrity goes up, and all individuality and creativity goes out the window. Relying on market surveys, catering to lazy parents in order to meet quotas; it all smacks of the opposite of inspiration; and surely a national museum should inspire and excite us?

      Of course, in an ideal world the museum would be given the budget to do just that, and I’m sure all the staff of the Australian Museum—who I know are extremely talented and dedicated, I’ve met a few—would rise to the challenge if it was funded properly. It must be incredibly frustrating to continually be dealing with money issues while you’re trying to do such an important job. It’s ridiculous that it doesn’t get more support.

      But I worry that the current approach will lead to the quality level continually decreasing until the museum becomes completely irrelevant as anything but a kind of theme park.

      Mind you, it’s easy for me to cast aspersions to the wind here on my personal blog without coming up with hard alternatives—or in fact doing any extensive research. I had a strong reaction to the changes in the museum after my visit, and felt I had to talk about it; it’s good to stimulate a bit of discussion on the topic, in any case.

  4. Andrew
    Nov 11, 2010 @ 09:56:18

    I agree with all you’ve said. The approach of marketing and deciding which colour button kids like to press best, and how much Comic Sans is too much does kill creativity – and the doers and makers within the museum world chafe and grind at the restrictions it brings.

    In my mind, this will only be resolved when the measurement portion of the museum and gallery world is updated to a more meaningful thing than raw numbers.

    Many years ago when I worked in a much larger institution with a large ($50 million) budget, we went through a brand focussing exercise. The leader asked “What is your goal for this year” and our Director, only half joking, answered “To get 300,000 visitors.” The man turned on him and said, “If that is your goal, why not spend $5 million getting the Rolling Stones to play a free concert in the park, get your 300,000 people, then you and all your staff can take the rest of the year off.” Point made!

    The issue is that we all knew that was not our goal, we had much more meaning than simple numbers, but that the only measurement we were given was numbers. Until there is a better way of judging how well we do what we do then there this situation will get worse.

    And it is not just museums under this particular yoke, schools rankings and Naplan tests are the same beast in different clothing, and probably producing the same, watered down outcomes.

    On a brighter note, if you want some real world solutions, you could fritter away some of the untold wealth graphic design no doubt brings you by visiting Sweden. The Vassa Museum and Historika Museum are fabulous examples of a society that understands museums can be places of play and exploration for kids, but can then puts that side by side with serious, intelligent, and even controversial content for adults.

    • universalhead
      Nov 11, 2010 @ 10:54:01

      They look like excellent museums Andrew, I’ll put them on the list of places I’ll be flying to on my private jet this year! 😉

      Vasa Museum
      Historiska Museum

      As you say, everyone’s focus, especially after recent world economic debacles, has been on money, and as a result no-one’s willing to take risks or strive for quality. With short-term profit as the only hardstick, we’ll all suffer long-term.

      In my industry, I’ve certainly noticed the decline of visual communication as everyone goes for quick, cheap solutions. (Comics Sans—it hurtsss! My eyeeessss!!) I might even have to sell my private jet next year …

  5. queenwilly
    Nov 18, 2010 @ 13:27:20

    hey, can I come on the private jet too? I will just nestle down at the back with some beluga and thin toast, oh and some of that nice Chateau d’Yquem, and not be any trouble.

    • universalhead
      Nov 18, 2010 @ 13:40:43

      Indeed! Tahiti looks nice.