Last week, there was a New York Times article about the recently opened Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and Madame Tussauds attractions in Times Square. The author focused on the appeal of the lurid, the sensational, and the devilishly entertaining, and there’s certainly a lot to be said for these attributes. Heck, sign me up for a ticket to the zombie museum. But when I took off my “entertainment” glasses and put on my museum eyes, my reaction wasn’t amusement. It was distaste. I imagined museum folks reading the article and snapping the paper closed with smug smiles on their faces: "See. This is why we have to avoid Disneyfication." But such arrogance is ill-advised. Ripley's is just a small symbol of the growing challenge for museums to compete for audiences in a growing experience economy.
Museums need to be thinking about the competition—and it’s much bigger and smarter than Ripley’s. It’s easy to look at something like Ripley’s and think: that’s what’s the public wants. But that argument respects our audiences too little. Sure, Ripley’s may be the Star magazine of museums, but a lot more people read Time than the tabloids. Look at the most popular shows on television: Lost, Heroes—these are complex, unusual experiences.
Ripley’s is not the ultimate manifestation of what the public wants. Ripley’s is a remake, a B-movie, most impressive for the extent to which it has reinvented itself. The real story here isn’t about Americans’ continued fascination with shriveled heads; it’s about the extent to which we’ve moved beyond them.
Ripley’s is a circus. What P. T. Barnum did for the big top, Ripley did for the public collection on display. But Barnum and Bailey don’t rule the circus world anymore. The public has moved on. The rise of avant garde performances by Stomp, the Blue Man Group, and most notably, Cirque de Soleil, have changed the landscape of the circus—and by extension, the way museum people should evaluate and judge themselves against entertainment venues.
Over the last twenty years, Cirque de Soleil has grown into arguably the most widespread live entertainment experience in the world. They bring in over 600 million dollars yearly from 13 different shows. They have permanent and traveling shows. Their shows have complex and layered stories, music, and visual effects. They take lots of risks, blending gymnastic feats with made-up languages, intensely engineered sets, sexually explicit content, and interaction with the crowd. Tickets are expensive and hard to come by.
It may be easy to discount Ripley’s as a low-brow diversion, inapplicable to the museum world. It’s much harder to do so with Cirque de Soleil. Cirque successfully draws a diverse audience into an experience that is highly visual, metaphorical, and complex. It’s Ripley’s all grown up, and, in growing up, Cirque achieved some goals that museums still struggle with. It’s an emotional, immersive experience. It’s not just eye candy; it’s art that isn’t afraid to pull punches. And yet instead of repelling people by making them feel stupid, it sucks them in.
I was talking to an investor this weekend who told me how much he hates museums. His wife drags him to the Met and all he wants to do is go to the café. When I told him about some of the things I’m working on, he initially couldn’t grasp the idea of museums as immersive experiences. The reference point that finally got him there was Cirque de Soleil. For him, Cirque means excitement, innovative design, content that makes him think—all the positive associations I want him to have with museums are there.
Maybe Ripley’s isn’t the reference point that excites you when it comes to reformation and revolution in museums. Maybe it’s the Creation Museum. Maybe it’s Cirque de Soleil, or street performance, or farmer’s markets. But the point is that all of these have valid and interesting lessons to teach us about how to reach out to audiences. Sometimes exhibit designers do site reviews when planning major building projects. It always seems most valuable when they venture outside the museum to retail venues, web venues, thinking to themselves: “How would Sephora do a museum? How would YouTube do a museum?”
How would Cirque de Soleil do a museum? Maybe it’s time to slap on some leotards and find out.