Why? People, not Objects, are the Future

John R. Grimes

Thinking about the future, and the changes that always attend it, is like standing at the mouth of an unexplored cave, knowing that you must go down. Nearby features are dimly visible, but gradually, deeper inside, they become indistinct. What lies ahead? The lessons you’ve learned in the world of daylight may not be useful as you journey down.

Certainly, museums have undergone change in the past, and their leadership and boards have helped guide them through it. But most would agree that the pace of change is accelerating, its amplitude is increasing, and that now more than ever museums need to proactively prepare for whatever the future might bring.

How does any organization prepare for change? What do those that survive and thrive have in common? Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent… It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.

What does it mean for museums to be adaptable? I think it requires three key capacities. First, they must be aware of significant trends — even those that are “inconvenient” — that challenge current assumptions. Second, they must understand what is truly essential about their purpose, and what is peripheral. Third, when the necessity for change becomes apparent, they must have the courage to embrace whatever the change requires.

In this paper, I will outline some of the trends that I believe are most relevant to museums. The trends that seem inconvenient or troubling also reveal clues to new opportunities. Next, I will use the trends to “stress test” some of the conventions upon which museums are based. I will then concluce with my perspective on what I consider the essential purpose of museums moving forward. And, I will propose some of the changes I believe museums finally need to embrace. First, however, I will provide a reference point, or benchmark, to help calibrate and guide this exploration.

Time is currency

In 2014, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) published an important survey of 220 museums across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It shows us that, on average, providing visitors with a museum experience is expensive. The methodology is simple, divide the total annual operating costs by attendance. The average result for the AAMD sample is $53.17. What’s more, only 15% of this cost — $7.93 — is covered by direct revenues from each visitor.

The corollary, of course, is that the remaining 85% of the cost per visitor — $45.24 — must be subsidized by other revenues, usually some mix of government support, private sector contribution and endowment income. In effect, museums use visitor revenues to leverage the lion’s share of their budgets (in this sample, a ratio of 1 to 5.7). Government agencies and/or private sector donors invest in the subsidy because they believe museums are a public good. But to focus on dollars and cents distracts us from a more fundamental point: the currency that sustains museums is not money, but attention — money is just the byproduct. Museums sustain themselves by monetizing visitors’ attention and time.

A Poverty of Attention

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention... — H.A. Simon

Canadians are among the biggest Internet users in the world, with 32.1 million people connected (85% of the population). On average, they spend 36.3 hours online each month looking at 3,238 pages on 80 websites.

Obviously, time spent online is time not available for other activities. Studies show each hour spent online results in 17.5 fewer minutes for “offline leisure.” Research suggests the time Canadians spend online each month takes up 10.5 hours that could otherwise have been spent going to a museum, for example. Moreover, total screen time — including handhelds, computers, tablets and televisions — reaches a whopping 188 hours for Canadians each month. We can only expect these numbers to increase, considering younger generations are the most digitally addicted. One survey tells us that among millennials — people born between 1981 and 1996 — the sense of attachment to their digital devices is so strong that given a choice between losing their sense of smell or their devices, half would sacrifice their sense of smell.

According to Statistics Canada, millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce. This generation should be a growing constituency for museums, as visitors, members, donors and board members. But will they find the time?

For all Canadians, it’s about time and choice, and for many, time is being squeezed. Canadians are among the most sleep-deprived people in the world. When asked how they would spend an extra two hours in a day, their priorities were, in order of preference: spending time with family, taking a nap, getting intimate with their partner (men more so than women), reading a book (women more so than men), and watching a movie. Even among high-propensity culture consumers, there is an increasing tendency to stay home when free time becomes available.

Attention is a finite individual resource. A hundred years ago — when museums achieved a more or less modern form — the demands on people’s attention were far less than they are today. Now, competition for attention is much more intense, and is growing exponentially. For museums, capturing and keeping the attention of audiences is the central challenge of the future. And we should not assume this is simply a matter of advertising, “if they knew we were here, and how great we are, they would come.” Getting and keeping attention has far more to do with external perceptions of relevance .

We need to examine conventional assumptions about why people come to museums, what captures their attention, what drives their participation, and what they value about the experience. As museum insiders, we have historically assumed people come to museums to see objects and learn something new. But studies show the opportunity for social time and leisure are more common motivators. As insiders, we also assume people evaluate the quality of their visit in terms of their educational experience, but studies show this is not the case either. For visitors, entertainment, the overall “likability” of the organizational brand, admissions value, employee courtesy, parking convenience, and cleanliness (think washrooms) all outrank education as contributors to post-visit satisfaction. As insiders, we assume when people come to museums they look at objects and read didactic labels, but studies show many visitors only spend 10-20 minutes in any given gallery, look at individual objects for 30 seconds or less, and read labels sparingly. They actually spend a significant amount of time looking at other visitors.

As uncomfortable as it might make us, the relationship between museums and their visitors does not exclusively, or even predominantly, revolve around objects and education. There is a disconnect between what museum insiders believe should motivate visitors and what actually does . Colleen Dilenschneider, author of the Know Your Bone blog, speaks about the dangers of an over-reliance on internal perspectives.

… some cultural organizations cross their fingers and hope with all their intellectual might that [what] … they say and think exist actually exist in real life for their constituents.

I believe the disconnect is not just a misjudgement of audiences, but reveals a longstanding and fundamental miscalibration of the “internal guidance system” museums employ, one that perpetuates a mistaken underlying premise — the purpose of museums is collecting, preserving, and interpreting objects . This premise suggests objects are museums’ best insurance for maintaining relevance in the future. “… in any institution worthy of the name “museum””, one U.K. 72 museum director tells us,

the prime resource is its collections. … While the ease of physical and virtual replication will increase and become more sophisticated, the “magic” of experience of the original, real artefact is bound to become more important to people.

I believe this view, overly fetishizes objects at the expense of seeking a deeper understanding of the greater social purpose of museums, which should ultimately focus on people, not things.

Simon Sinek points out, most organizations think and talk about themselves solely in terms of what they do and how they do it. Very few think and talk in terms of why they do what they do. Sometimes organizations think what they do and how they do it is why . In my experience, this is the situation at many museums.

Sinek uses Apple as an example of an organization that thinks and talks about itself in terms of why it does what it does, which is to empower people to “think different”. How they do this is by designing products that are easy to use and beautifully functional. What they do is manufacture computers, iPhones, iPads, and a continually unfolding suite of new and innovative products. Apple is immensely successful not because of what or how , but why . Customers are loyal because they adopt the why as an important part of their identity as members of a creative class that “thinks different”. In a field of enormous competition for attention (and sales), the why gives Apple a powerful edge.

What, How, Why for Museums

What museums do is tell stories, an essential human nourishment. We are designed for stories. “Our brains,” says psychologist Bruce Poulsen,

are pattern-detection machines… making it possible to uncover meaningful relationships among the barrage of sensory input we face. Without such meaning-making, we would be unable to make predictions about survival and reproduction. The natural and interpersonal world around us would be too chaotic.

Before written word, stories were an incredibly effective means of archiving and sharing knowledge and wisdom across generations. Stories are durable because they involve multiple areas of the brain, creating reminiscent networks of emotions and association.

How museums tell stories has traditionally been through objects. An object in isolation evokes latent knowledge, memory and emotion in the viewer. Juxtaposing two objects multiplies the effect by suggesting narrative, and enlisting the viewer’s narrative engagement. To artificially mass many objects together, as the creators of the earliest museums discovered, is to evoke a world of ideas in the minds of viewers. As museums became more sophisticated, they found new ways to guide the narrative experience through text, dramatic attention-oriented lighting, and sequencing of presentation, but the underlying neurological dynamics are the same.

Stories and objects — however wonderful and powerful — are not the why they do not explain the higher social purpose of museums. That purpose, I believe, should transcend local or national or canonical narrative (although these may be among the stories museums tell) to be universally inclusive.

“The only true voyage” Marcel Proust tells us,

is … not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is…

Martin Buber says “all real living is meeting” a message akin to what, in the Zulu language, is called ubuntu — the recognition that I am because you are — that we are all human because of each other.

I believe the why of museums is connecting people to the immense web of human experience, to the inexhaustible legacy of human creativity, resilience and heroism. Museums can use objects, works of art, stories, media, space and performance to tell stories that help inspire moments of true communion between people, — people separated by time, geography, culture, experience and perspective. This represents an ever-unfolding journey of relational discovery, empathy, and understanding. Through this connection, people’s awareness of their own human inheritance, of their own potential, is affirmed and ennobled. Within this why , visitors are not merely spectators or learners, but precious story-bearers traveling on a shared human journey.

I believe this why , this higher purpose, is key to the adaptability of museums in an increasingly information-rich, attention-impoverished world. In that world, people will not seek out authentic objects so much as authentic humanity and connections to people with shared values. In an age of “post truth,” where political and religious ideologies pass for reality, museums can provide skills for critical thinking and for engaging with other valid perspectives. In an age of “post empathy,” where misunderstanding and mistrust sow global strife and displacement, museums can help us see, through each other’s eyes, our common humanity and future. In an age of “post human”, where artificial intelligence seems poised to rob humanity of its creative pre-eminence, museums can help people protect and assert the qualities that make us most essentially human.

Just as Apple’s why inspires its devoted customer base to place the ideal of “think different” at the centre of their own identity, so too can the why of museums. A deep personal connection to humanity can inspire visitors to place that ideal at the center of their identity, and carry it with them wherever they go. In a world where digital interfaces are more and more part of daily life, museums — armed with why — can and should actively explore new ways of telling their affirming stories, using new technologies that reach followers inside and outside the walls of museums.

Embracing the Change

To become adaptable organizations that can survive and thrive in the future, having a  why is not enough — the  why needs to be lived. To do this, museums will need to transform themselves inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, they must replace their outdated “collect-preserve-interpret” paradigm with a new one, in which they have an active role as social conveners, as well as being creators of content and architects of experiences.

Outwardly, living the  why means projecting an organizational culture that is simultaneously why -driven, people-centered, and relationship-focused. “We are drawn to leaders and organizations,” Sinek reminds us, “that… make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone…”. This kind of leadership is not only the job of board members, directors and curators, but of everyone who works in museums. It’s leadership that is not limited to special situations, but is present in every contact with every visitor and potential visitor, in every conversation in person and on the telephone, in every email, letter, bulletin and catalogue. Every time anyone is touched by a museum, they should be encouraged to feel that they belong to its community of purpose, and that they are special, safe and not alone.

I strongly believe knowing and living the  why is not just a matter of adopting a friendlier, more customer-focused organizational culture, a proper goal in and of itself. It’s brass-tacks essential for the survival of museums, since this is the only way they will successfully compete for people’s attention, time, participation and loyalty. It’s not only to enlist them in a cause, but to translate their loyalty into resources that can be invested in museum sustainability, growth, and most importantly, increasing social impact. 

I do not think it is overly dramatic to say museums are at a critical juncture. The future and its changes might indeed seem like a dark and potentially dangerous cave. If museums continue to define themselves only by what they do and how they do it, their integrity will be needlessly embrittled and imperilled by any hazards ahead. If instead they define themselves by their higher purpose, and by the community of purpose they serve, they will be as adaptable and durable as they need to be, and the dark cave will become a bright portal to a future of endless possibility.

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, March/April issue, 2017.