Monday, July 16, 2007

Is "Museum" a 4-Letter Word (for visitors)?

There have been some fun semantic jousting matches recently on the ASTC listserv about the difference between science museums and science centers. And earlier last month, the Museum of Television and Radio announced a name change to the Paley Center for Media. In the NYTimes article about the switch, Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of the center, made no apologies about the change:
‘Museum’ was not a word that tests really well with the under-30 and 40-year-olds,” especially in the context of radio and television, Ms. Mitchell said.
I'm not sure what research Ms. Mitchell based her comment on, but I'm hardly surprised by her findings. Despite the herculean efforts many museums take to offer accessible, cool, inviting experiences to the public, the word museum is still laden with the ghost of "don't touch" past. Add to this the fact that many museums no longer offer the basic collections and research services associated with them historically, and the appeal of the word diminishes. In the example of the Paley Center, the NY Times article continues:
Moreover, the name was somewhat misleading: some patrons would arrive expecting to see, say, Archie Bunker’s chair. In fact, until recently, museumgoers had nothing that they could see, unless they wanted to watch a specific old program. As part of the continuing changes, the West 52nd Street space now offers a rotating display, which now features Middle Eastern media, including a live feed of Al Jazeera’s English television channel.
But does switching to "Center" really clear up the fact that the place is a repository of and distribution center for media content? And more importantly, will it attract more visitors, members, and gifts?

I don't think so. The word Museum is not powerful enough, alone, to attract or repel visitors. Museum means different things in different markets. It's interesting that science museums have started to gravitate towards "center" to convey interactivity, and yet childrens' museums are rarely called centers and don't seem to suffer under the Museum label (though drunken variations of the Funatarium abound).

As an illustration, consider the following names:
  • Pirate Museum
  • Art Museum
  • Rock Star Museum
  • History Museum
What makes you excited about some of these and yawning at others? The word Museum has nothing to do with it--or, rather, our prejudices and expectations have more to do with the word(s) preceding Museum than the M-word itself. Kids wouldn't care if they were going to the Harry Potter Museum or the Harry Potter Castle of Fun or the Harry Potter Center: their interest in the topic overrides any prejudices about the venue.

In fact, Museum can be quite a useful word, especially if your collection is small, your topic is odd, or you generally seek credibility.
Driving across the country last month, I was amazed at the zillions of road signs for museums--it seemed like we passed more museums than truck stops. Many were local historical, but there are also Harley-Davidson dealerships, locksmiths, and candy stores with small window signs that say "AND MUSEUM." Labeling your collection--however dinky--a museum puts it into a useful category that signals value, organization, and public presentation of the stuff.

What if you think you are creating something so beyond the standard museum, either in collection, presentation style, or interpretation, that you want a new word? It's hard to create a new genre around a single location. The Exploratorium did it--and spawned off many "wondariums" and "discoveriums" trying to tie into the same spirit of activity and invention that makes the original a success. But the Experience Music Project? Sony Wonderlab? Will those brands define new genres? Are these places helped or hindered by their non-traditional names?

When the International Spy Museum was first being conceptualized, there was a name study commissioned. The designers initially favored a more mysterious name, the House on F Street, which they felt conveyed the intrigue of the future site. But people surveyed overwhelmingly prefered the straightforward "Spy Museum." And going with the Museum label has probably had other legitimacy benefits for SPY, which has been criticized as too Disneyesque. The House on F Street could be a haunted house, a ride, a movie... the Spy Museum is clear, and they've been able to stretch what they offer within that label.

The pirate museum in Key West, Pirate Soul, went the opposite direction and assumed an unclear name. Is "Pirate Soul" a strong enough brand to stand on its own, or do they lose potential visitors who look at it and think, what is that thing? In my mind, they missed a huge opportunity to be the Pirate Museum. When your content is wacky and compelling enough, the word Museum adds a legitimacy that transforms a potential tourist trap into a valuable attraction experience in the eyes of potential guests.

But what about the Paley Center and other museums offering more traditional content? If "art museum" is a deadly phrase, but you are a place that collects and shows art, what are your options?

I have a personal aversion to the word Center. I went to a junior high that was a feeder from many elementary schools, including one called the Center for Early Education. We always talked about those kids who came from "the Center" like it was some Orwellian futuristic kid-pod. But beyond my personal association, I think Center suffers from the fact that there's no public concept of what a center is. A park or library, sure. But a center? What is that thing?

A marketing blogger commented about the Paley Center's lack of context, saying:

If it's not a museum then what is it? Center for Media is open to interpretation varying from a room with a computer in a middle school to a State Department of Censorship, or (hopefully) an intriguing destination that offers rich content. ...

Best Buy is a Center for Media. YouTube is a Center for Media, the Apple Store is a Center for Media, Pearl Art Supply is a Center for Media, and so is the Public Library.
If you're searching outside the word Museum, why not adopt less ambiguous words with strong cultural associations? There are evocative location-based words, like Park, Alley, Lab, Station, and Market. There are action-oriented words, like Project and Exchange. Even words like Club, Gang, Crew--which connote more social than physical organizations--are identifiable expressions of some of the things museums are trying to be.

Of course, at the end of the day, it's what's inside that counts. And it will always be more powerful, marketing-wise, to have visitors walking out saying "That was the best museum I've ever been to!" than saying "That was the best thingamajig I've ever been to!" If you can make your content compelling, exciting, and glorious on the inside, word will spread and you could be calling yourself Aunt Ethel and people would still come.

What words could you imagine on your institutional masthead? How has being a Museum been a help or a hindrance in your world?

6 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

"Paley Center for Media" sounds like a thinktank or university department devoted to cultural studies. Zzzzzzzzz... boooooo-rrrrring! Museum of Television and Radio, though, always made me think of rows of knobs and dials behind glass. (And so I never visited.)

"Museum" can be fun, as you rightly proved with "Pirate/Art/Rock/etc." Even History Museum or [gasp] Museum of Science get my motor running.

I may not be quite as impartial as the question asks, but... I also like "Hall of..." Not only because of my workplace, but also mostly because, as a kid, I had a Sesame Street book in which Grover strolled through this huge "museum of everything in the world." (Hey, it's still available on Amazon! Kickass!) I think the different parts of the museum were called, e.g., "Hall of Things You Find in the Ocean." Maybe not -- it's been a while. But I always think of that book when I walk into work, or into a new museum.

I enjoy the comic book Gotham City connotations as well -- Hall of Science, Hall of Justice, Hall of Records, ...of Truth, ...of Wonders, etc. "Hall" hs a certain ring of majesty. "Center" seems like the pedestrian, politically correct alternative.

I'd like to see more "Temples" and "Treasuries," if only because they're such archaic words.

"Library of the Future" is cool. Don't know what it is, but I'd like to find out. Someone tell Paley.

Anonymous said...

This is a dangerous area for me, so I will try to behave. We seem to have a pattern in our American culture. When something needs an image change, we change the name. Huh? When stewards and stewardesses were feeling that they needed an image overhaul, they became "flight attendants." When well-intentioned people wanted to improve the status of mentally retarded people, they decided to call them "mentally delayed" or "mentally disabled" and any number of other phrases. This is akin to saying "stick thingys with chemicals on the end to make fire"--we have a word for those! Matches! Most replacement words are either synonyms or brief definitions of the words they are replacing. That's dumb.

If some people feel that the general perception of a "museum" is not what they would like it to be, change the perception, not the word. The word museum does just what it needs to do. Do museums do what THEY need to do? That's the better question.

"Paley Center for Media"--now that's an unfortunate name on many levels. It pales in comparison to Museum of Television and Radio. THAT was a place I wanted to visit. (Although, now that I read about it, it sounds like YouTube in a box. Big deal. I have NetFlix.)

N's comments above (or will they be below?) about "Hall" etc. resonate with me. Probably the Sesame Street reference.

The word "Center" is, indeed, about as ambiguous as you can get. (See Nina's door mat graphic.) The naming biz seems pretty straightforward to me. We have X-number of words in the English language. Surely one (and I do mean one, plus an adjective or two) will match your center, place, or thingy so well that when I see it on a map, I will know what to expect when I get there. In fact, I might go so far to say that if you can't find a word for it, then your mission is probably unclear or too broad. Be a restaurant or a brothel, but please, not both. Nobody needs to go to a Foodsexatarium.

Before I jump off my stump, I'll add that putting benefactor's names on places is annoying. Paley? Udvar Hazy Dazy? This is not helpful information to visitors! I guess I'd make an exception if it's an old ball park.

Nina Simon said...


Funny you mention that about the inclusion of the patron's name in the title. In the Paley Center article, execs commented that they added the name to "give it some distinction." At first read, that struck me as ridiculous. And yet, sometimes a name--like Tate or Guggenheim, becomes the interesting word that differentiates a place. What other options are there if you are going to be the X Museum of Art and don't want X to be your location? (That's a sincere question, not rhetorical.)

We don't mind the fact that many universities are named after people. Same with restaurants or drugstores. Get a soul, and the name will start to mean something. Or is there a better way?

Oh, and a friend from AAM alerted me to this gem: the River Music Experience. A prize to anyone who can figure out exactly WHAT it is. And this is part of the challenge with multi-use--the more services we offer, the more the mission (and name) gets hyphenated and confused. Coffee shops have successfully kept their old names and morphed into social, working, hang out places. Can museums do the same without needing new names?

Anonymous said...

I suppose that the donor name can come in handy for distiguishing one museum from another. Some names (like Paley) are just more sad than others. Go for donors with cool names!

Has any museum tried Kick-Ass Art Museum? That would be a nifty depature from other descriptors like Getty, Modern, or Ellensburg. I could see those getting old rather quickly, though. So I guess I don't really have a better idea.

Here is Seattle, we have The Museum of Flight. By making "The" part of the branding, the museum has positioned itself as, well, The Museum of Flight and not just any old museum of flight. The decision to use Flight instead of Air or Aviation was also clever and distinctive.

As for our friends River Music Experience, it appears that they are a museum/performance center (there's that word) much like their almost-namesake, Experience Music Project from whom they have also stolen some look-and-feel as well as the nomenclature. RME has a few flaws in their website, not the least of which is assuming that people know who and where they are! "The River Music Experience exists to provide our residents..." Residents? Huh? That sounds like an old folks home. It turns out that they mean residents of Davenport, Iowa. Who would have thought that anyone outside Davenport would use the Internet?

Anonymous said...

I think Children's Museums DO have a problem sometimes with the word Museum in their title - and yes, it totally depends on the individual visitor's previous experiences with the word Museum.

We've heard from visitors that even though their friends RAVED about our children's museum, they were reluctant to visit here because of the word Museum - to them, it didn't sound hands-on, it sounded like dusty vitrines and empty halls.

And in our case, it is our hope that being a Discovery Museum helps eliminate some of the negative bias of Museum with visitors - Discovery has hands-on, interactive connotations hopefully.

That said, we also like the gravitas of Museum for certain populations (donors) for where it elevates us to the level of the rest of their philanthropy ("I support the Art Museum, the Symphony, the Opera, and the Children's Museum."

And Seth, I'll disagree that there's no use in trying to fix the 'image problem' of stewardesses by calling them flight attendants - I believe there's some pretty solid research that says you can change behavior by first changing perceptions.

Also, you chose a couple of fairly mild examples of so-called "Political Correctness" where people might be inclined to agree with you - but if you chose some more charged examples (such as previously socially acceptable names for various ethnic groups or sexual orientations) you might get a very different response...

Concerned Former TV Museum Friend said...

I have a few insights on the strongly negative effects of the name change upon this institution -- but first, a bit of history and a correction on what was available to see at the now ex-Museum of TV & Radio.

The museum was established by CBS founder William Paley in the early 1970s to preserve all the early, experimental, live, and rare television programming that was at that time literally being tossed into New York and LA dumpsters by the ton. The mission was essentially to save our television heritage. With that in mind, and in a pre-VCR era, the programming was meant to be the star. This was not an object-based museum, although there was usually at least one exhibit of photographs or objects on view; mostly, however, it was dedicated to being the largest repository of television programming in the country, including very rare formats and shows. Visitors could indeed choose a specific program to watch, but the star attractions were the curated, themed collections/exhibitions of television programs that ran in various theaters inside the museum, changed frequently throughout the year, and could not be found elsewhere. Even now, since the rise of the DVD, much of what the museum curated and presented is impossible to find commercially.

But sadly, since Pat Mitchell took over and the ex-Museum became a "center," the exhibitions that even in the early 2000s drew great crowds have been discontinued, and the place now does only one-off celebrity events and the like. They have even begun throwing out programming, literally in dumpsters -- the very activity the museum was established to stop! I know this from those who have witnessed it personally. Nonetheless, they are still holders of the biggest archive in the country; they just don't understand or respect it anymore, because they believe the public no longer understands or respects it. (Mitchell says so herself in the quoted piece.)

In this case, I believe dropping the "museum" designation both signified and enabled serious mission drift, caused funders to withdraw, and marked the bitter end of what had been at one time a flourishing institution. If this is any example, moving from "museum" to a different designation is a terribly demoralizing shift. Most of all, it shows that the leadership of a place no longer deems it worthy of museum status (or rather, that new leadership has come in and feels this way). Even if one is unlucky enough to have acquired such leadership/destroyership, no museum board should let a name change like this slip through. It has truly helped devastate the ex-Museum of TV & Radio (I can't even call it a "center"). William Paley surely must be rolling over in his grave...

I don't like to speak so strongly, but it's horrifying to watch such an important archive and museum suffer in this way. The name change is only one symptom of a much greater problem, but it's a key symptom, and one to vigilantly defend against.