People often ask me which museums are my favorite. I don't like to give a list. I've only visited about 0.01% of the institutions out there and I suspect that the other 99.99% includes some real gems. But when I really think about it, all my favorites (so far) have one thing in common. It's not the extent to which they are participatory. It's not their size or type or subject matter. It's the extent to which they are distinctive, and more precisely, idiosyncratic.
I visit lots of perfectly nice, perfectly forgettable museums. The institutions that stick with me are the ones that have a peculiar individuality. In some cases, that's based on subject matter, as at the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the American Visionary Art Museum. Other institutions are idiosyncratic in their relationship to their environment, like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, or to their community, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Some are scrappy and iconoclastic, like the City Museum in St. Louis, whereas others are august stalwarts like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. While most of my favorites are small (idiosyncrasy is easier to maintain without too many committees), some are quite large--places like the Exploratorium where a singular ethos infuses a massive facility.
Idiosyncratic institutions aren't just quirky and weird. They are usually staffed by people who feel incredibly passionate about their particular focus. These institutions are often more connected to their specific, local communities than more generic institutions. They are akin to local news organizations and charities. They reflect the soul of the community and can be responsive to its unique interests and needs. They are places that people point to with pride and say, "that's our place."
Even the business world is getting wise to the power of idiosyncrasy. The 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea shop (shown at right) is not a small community-owned place. It's a Starbucks. Over the last year, Starbucks has been opening stores in a few cities with a very different look--one that emulates the handmade, community vibe of locally-owned coffee shops. Whether you think this is a brilliant move or a corporate swindle, it demonstrates that even a large company with a highly branded, consistent image sees the benefit of individualizing offerings to different markets. Starbucks can't be a small funky startup, but it can try to look like one.
Why are museums going in the other direction, trying to become more consistent rather than celebrating their idiosyncrasies? To some extent, it's externally-driven. Funders and potential donors tend to look for particular benchmarks of professionalism (appropriately), and few are comfortable funding the most risky or content-specific institutions. But that's only part of the story. Mostly, institutions move away from idiosyncrasy on their own accord. I see three significant internal reasons for homogenization in museums:
- As money gets tight, museums look for exhibits, program strategies, and revenue streams that are "proven" by other institutions' successes, rather than charting their own potentially risky path.
- Many museums no longer employ in-house exhibit developers, relying instead on a short list of contractors and consultants. Design firms' projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions.
- Small museums, which are most likely to cultivate local, distinctive voice and approaches, often have an inferiority complex. Rather than asserting their uniqueness, they try to emulate large museums.
- The audience cycles frequently as families "age out." Institutions may feel less of a need to offer something unusual or distinctive if the audience will keep refreshing every few years.
- The content is often seen as not being community-specific. Science is science, and grocery store exhibits are grocery store exhibits. Funders like the NSF have encouraged science centers in particular to share their techniques and evaluations, which is fabulous but also leads to rampant and sometimes unthinking imitation.
- These museums have undergone the fastest growth in the industry in the past thirty years. There is a big business of selling exhibits, copies of exhibits, and exhibit recipe books, and many individuals who start new institutions rely almost entirely on these vehicles to fill their galleries.
I understand why retail establishments benefit from becoming bigger, more homogeneous, and more distributed. People like to buy from chains because they know what they are going to get. But consistency should not be the number one value when it comes to providing visitors with educational, aesthetic, social, and hopefully transformative experiences. I'd argue that one of the top reasons people DON'T visit museums is that they think they already know what they are going to get. Especially when it comes to small museums with limited collections, a distinctive personality is often the best thing the institution has to offer. Trying to cover it up or smooth it out in favor of "best practices" does a disservice to the museum and the audience. It creates another forgettable museum.
Do you share my love of idiosyncratic institutions? How can you cultivate idiosyncrasy in your own work and museum?