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Are Museums Dying?: Crucial Steps Museums Must Take to Maintain Relevancy



museums dying

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, has a history of legendary public stances. DOPE readers probably recall one particularly famous legislative stance the city took — I refer to the 2012 decision to remove all copyright law protecting the world-renowned Rijksmuseum. Anyone with an internet connection can freely download and repurpose images from the collection for literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and business purposes.

In his seminal 2008 book, “Remix,”Dr. Lawrence Lessig explores internet users’ instinctive love for discovering and repurposing content online. Remix culture, as he calls it, is the native language of the internet. Lessig explains that profit-minded corporations manipulate old copyright laws to stifle the expression of remix culture and herd users into monetized platforms, such as YouTube, Spotify and Netflix.

Ever the contrarian, Amsterdam rolled up copyright convention and set it ablaze. The Rijksmuseum discarded the exclusivity of access, often considered the foundation of museums’ profitability. The entire million-item collection is in the public domain. The Rijksmuseum hopes users will access their online “Rijksstudio” portal, enjoy the collection, download their favorite pieces and spread the museum’s influence around the world.

The Rijksmuseum is not the only public collection embracing a digital future. Globally, curated cultural exhibits are learning that they must assume cultural leadership positions by opening their collections to the community — and doing so won’t necessarily mean a drop in attendance, either. 

Below the Surface

The July 2018 opening of Amsterdam’s new transportation hub, Rokin metro, marked the completion of the city’s 15-year “Below The Surface”project. The operation employed a diverse cast of archeologists, data scientists, designers and media professionals in building a public works project with a permanent digital legacy.

 “The quality of our work is evident in the magnitude of the resulting discussion,” comments Dr. J.H.G. Gawronski, professor at the University of Amsterdam and lead archeologist on the project. “We’ve opened the story of 100,000 years of material culture to public interpretation. We welcome private curation and discussion by the public in the digital space.”

The public can engage with “Below The Surface” both physically and digitally. Rokin metro features 20,000 artifacts set into two 15-meter showcases that run alongside its escalator entryway, and hundreds of thousands more discoveries are available at the project’s website.

The Collaborative Model

“Museums tend to think inside-out,” argues Dr. Jeroen van Erp, founding partner and innovation strategist at Fabrique, a digital agency. “We must now design with a model of collaboration, introducing novel means of interaction which engage people and rise above the artifact that is presented.”

Ambitious, multi-disciplinary collaborations in line with van Erp’s ideas have found willing partners in museums looking to pioneer new engagement strategies. Judith Guston, curator and director of the Rosenbach, led a bold collaboration with Arizona State University to present their collection of rare books in a modern light. “‘Frankenstein & Dracula: Gothic Monsters, Modern Science’incorporated multi-media storytelling, collaborative technology and gaming,” explains Guston. The exhibition aimed to “illustrate the continuing relevance and importance of monster stories on their 200th anniversary.” Guston’s team realized they had succeeded when visitors ages 18 to 40 jumped from 25 percent to 61 percent of all exhibit attendees.

Stories and experiences, not necessarily artifacts, draw modern audiences. Both “BelowThe Surface”and the“Frankenstein & Dracula”were able to inspire the exhibition of otherwise unengaging artifacts by embracing creative collaborations.

Third Party Competitors

While “Frankenstein & Dracula”embraced multimedia in its physical presentation, the future promises exhibits that the public will access from the comfort of their own homes. Virtual reality headsets will soon be able to transport a classroom in backwater Gurley, Alabama, on a field trip to the National Air and Space Museum, to space itself, or even to the Big Bang — if they believe in that kind of stuff.

“We all have a story to tell,” notes Ross Allison, owner of Spooked in Seattle Ghost Tours. “Where a museum can get you up close and personal, a tour can take you on an adventure.” Smaller, more nimble outfits, like Spooked in Seattle, can interface with platform technology more easily than big museums.

Wherever experiences can be packaged, distribution platform(s) will emerge. Amazon’s in-person sales killed Toys“R”Us. Netflix killed Blockbuster. Imagine a YouTube-like service offering digital experiences like Allison’s at a fraction of the price. A well-designed program could employ data science to accumulate information to rival that of the expert curators.

The Future of Museums

By producing more shared content, museums can not only survive the rapidly changing tastes of modern audiences, but more effectively enrich the culture of the global population — which was their purpose, to begin with. Museums can achieve widespread adoption of their brand by opening their collections to the community, and, by developing this brand, museums add pedigree and credibility to public content.

To facilitate this change, museums must produce more content and become less exclusive, while maintaining inflow from federal funding, donors and sales. While not every museum can necessarily drop their entire collection into the public domain, the Rijksmuseum and its peers show a way for these institutions to better serve the principles of giving and sharing as we push into exciting new futures.


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