1.03: Can Technology Save Museums?

Touch wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Erik Drost.

Touch wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Erik Drost.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, adult participation in the arts is in steep decline. In 2002, 39 percent of all American adults visited a museum, went to a concert, or participated in some other in-person cultural event at least once. In 2012—the most recent year for which the NEA has data—only 33 percent did the same.

If the drop in participation were to continue at the same rate—about 6 percentage points per decade—then by the 2060s, the nation's art museums would be devoid of visitors. Except maybe for senior citizens: people over 55 kept going to museums faithfully, the NEA found.

If you believe as I do that something magical happens when people (of any age) encounter art in person, then the NEA statistics are pretty scary. This episode of Soonish asks: Will the museums of the future be empty, or thriving? What can the nation's museums do to re-engage the public and make sure they have loyal audiences 10, 20, or 50 years from now? What role can technology play—and when should it stay out of the way?

We know that younger people are being channeled away from museums by the profusion of learning and entertainment options available on the Internet and their smartphones. And when it comes to art, the new options for learning about art without ever setting foot in a museum are, in fact, pretty stunning. Just consider the Google Cultural Institute, which offers access to high-resolution photographs of millions of artworks from scores of museums in over 40 countries.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

But if museums didn't exist, Google wouldn't have much to photograph. And beyond their role as storehouses (some would say mausoleums) for art, well-designed museums can be playgrounds for learning and growth. 

My own feeling is that there's something indispensable about the opportunity to encounter a work of art, live and in person, and soak up whatever meaning it may offer. That may be the only way to build a deep and lasting connection with art, something that started for me when I was 10 years old and my grandmother took me to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see an exhibition of Matisse cutouts. 

"That is the real value of going to a museum," as Tamar Avishai, creator and host of The Lonely Palette podcast, puts it in this episode. "There is nothing you can get at a museum now that you can't get online except standing in that aura." (After you've heard the show, listen to my full interview with Tamar.)

The stories in this episode—drawn from the experiences of curators, entrepreneurs, artists, and communicators in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston—show that technology can help draw people into art's aura. But it can't make them stay there, or guarantee that they'll have an epiphany. That probably depends on something more direct—the melding in the moment of artist, object, and viewer.

Speaking of epiphanies, here's a photo of Museum Epiphany III, the image referenced in the segment of the episode about Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. It was created in 2012 by the painter Warren Prosperi and his wife, the photographer Lucia Prosperi. I did a separate 7-minute feature for WBUR's ARTery about this painting, and I'm planning to revisit it in a future episode of Soonish.

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 

See Also

The Full Tamar Avishai Interview

 

Guests

Charlotte Cagan, former CEO, San Diego History Center

Curtis Wong, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research, Redmond, WA

Tricia Robson, Director of Web and Digital Production, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Mark Paddon, CEO, Guidekick

Warren Prosperi, Prosperi Studio

Tamar Avishai, Host, The Lonely Palette

 

Resources

A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, National Endowment for the Arts Research Report #58, January 2015.

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse & Dr. Barnes, Corbis Publishing, 1995. New and used copies for Macintosh and Windows available at Amazon and eBay.

The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary by Don Argott about the Barnes Foundation's relocation from Merion, PA, to downtown Philadelphia

The MFA Plays an Artful Mind Game With Its Visitors—And They Love The 'Epiphany', WBUR, November 7, 2016

San Francisco, a 1955 CinemaScope film by Tulio Pellegrini at archive.org

Guidekick's mobile app for the de Young Museum (iOS)

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Like Starlight Through a Veil from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

Wildcat Blues by Sidney Bechet, archive.org

Sunray by from the album Chapter Three: Warm by Kai Engel

Yankee Doodle, Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, archive.org

Spring, Movement 1, Allegro, from the album The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) by John Harrison with the Wichita State University Chamber Players 

Realness from the album Better Way by Kai Engel

Even When We Fall from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

 

Special Thanks

I got valuable editorial feedback and production advice on this episode from Mitch Hanley, John Davidow, and Mark Pelofsky. Thanks also to my hosts in Seattle and San Francisco: Luke Timmerman, Tracy Cutchlow, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, and Ellen Leanse. Cleveland Museum of Art photo by Erik Drost, used under a CC-by-2.0 license.