Selling memories: the line between museum education and consumerism

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Update: Thank you all for sharing your museum experiences via comments and tweeter!

Reader Brian Gratwicke shared another clever ad campaign (this time from Vancouver’s Aquarium) “If frogs go extinct, you’ll notice“. Readers: please continue to submit your museum experiences (good OR bad) via comments or twitter!

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

A few months ago, the science blogosphere was ablaze with an ad campaign from the a science museum in Vancouver. This campaign combines unusual ads with a quirky scientific message. A sign saying “a blue whale’s heart is the size of this car” is fixed, well, atop of a car. Another car drove around with a “woofasaurus” on the back seat; a fluid-filled tank encouraged kids to walk on water; a tiger’s litterbox littered the street; and a moving squid eye followed museum visitors. All ads promise Vancouver inhabitants that they will find answers at the museum.

As we mentioned in earlier blog posts, many adults visit museums after they are persuaded by their children. This phenomenon, called “the nag effect”, is widely recognized and taken advantage of in the world of advertising. One example of the nag effect in action is described in the article “how do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy food.”  The Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications used the nag effect in their advertising strategy. Their ad campaign, in place since 2004, combined print ads, billboards, bus stop ads, TV and radio spots, and a collection of “unconventional” ad media. Convincing a parent to visit a museum sounds like a better idea than pushing them to buy unhealthy food, but still: we are talking about using the power of advertising and consumerism in favor of a museum.

This ad counts on the voluntary participation of Vancouver seagulls. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

When is it honorable to use advertising as subterfuge for the cause of science and education?
The question of museum funding is delicate. Museums may receive public funds but must also balance a complicated mix of donations and private funding. Stephen T. Asma, in his instigating book “Stuffed animals and pickled heads: the culture and evolution of natural history museums” emphasizes how the origin of funds can end up dictating the content of the museum: “generally speaking, tracking the flow of money (public of private) provides many explanations of why curators curate the way they do, and even why one particular curator gets the job in the first place.” Unfortunately, this can be illustrated by the recent budget cuts to the Field Museum, which will also seriously affect the museum’s research program.

Besides trying to attract donors and sponsors, museums also try to raise funds by selling tickets. We now delve in the mystical (and very uncomfortable) territory where education must, to some degree, meet consumerism. How can a museum increase its consumer base and gain more repeat customers? In other words, how can a museum sell more tickets? Reconciling the educational with the commercial vision is a challenge. In order to thrive, museums might have to adopt commercial or consumerism concepts. Using the nag effect is just one way to accomplish that.

Quirky way to put sauroposeidon into scale. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

Is “edutainment” the solution to thriving museums?

The museum’s commercial role as a provider of entertainment (or edutainment) was already recognised in 1928 by a Field Museum curator, N. W. Harris. As told to Stephen T. Asma, N. W. Harris realized that “impressions obtained in childhood are the most vivid and lasting… [and] knowledge is most welcome when its acquisition is sweetened with a flavor of entertainment”.

Fast forward to 2012, when self-proclaimed Bad Astronomer Phil Plait agreed, specifically when discussing the Vancouver ads. As Plait points out, “[the Vancouver Science World have] set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which
keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase ‘We can explain’, which brings the message home. Awesomeness.” Awesomeness is an adequate technical term to describe it.

Interactive exhibits are one form of offering edutainment. Interacting with a museum exhibit falls under the “participatory museum” concept, advocated by Nina Simon. The recently-opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas has “interactive” written all over it. The New York Times reported on its opening, describing many of those edutainment exhibits, which includes “1.5 ton geode whose halves you can manipulate with a wheel…; sensors that allow you to launch table-tennis balls with brain signals; simple robots that can be programmed to maneuver through a maze.” But the one exhibit that makes me want to hop on the next plane to Dallas is “a 55-foot-long ‘running wall’ [where] you can race alongside moving images of a full-size cheetah, a Tyrannosaurus rex or contemporary athletes.”

Unfortunately, edutainment gone bad is also easy to find. Roaring animatronic dinosaurs might sell some extra tickets, but they lack the scientific groundwork expected from a museum. The animal’s voices, stance, behaviors, and colors are speculations, and might even perpetuate scientific misconceptions, thus being a disservice to visitors. Most of those exhibits still depict the T. rex and other dinos as scaly lizards, when it is now known that many were at least partially covered by down-like proto-feathers. Those kind of experiences make renowned scientists fear museums will become theme parks. As reported to Asma, naturalist Stephen Jay Gould believes that “theme parks represent the realm of commerce, museums the educational world — and the first, by its the power and immensity, must trump the second in any direct encounter. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.”

Paint by numbers T. Rex is another ad by the Vancouver Science World. Like this ad, I had to explain to Smithsonian visitors that the colors on the dinosaur dioramas were an artistic liberty — there is no way of knowing the color of pre-historic creatures. Color pigments are not preserved in million-year old fossils.

In another recent New York Times article, Edward Rothstein reported on some commercially-swallowed museums. Rothstein, after interacting with some museum exhibits, did not enjoy the experience: “I eagerly submit to their probes… The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.” A similar effect also happened at the Perot museum — praised above — that, according to the same author, might walk the line between the commercial and the educational: “It is difficult to absorb fully the history of cosmological exploration in a series of panels. Brief videos about particular scientists are meant to inspire aspirants, but few personalities are that intriguing, and most of them will probably remain unwatched.”

However, if done right, a combination of enticing ads, entertainment, and interactive exhibits can help. Museums will profit and the public will learn through enjoyable (informal) educational experiences.

Can we sell an educational museum experience?

I mentioned before some of the reasons that drive visitors to museums. According to one study, “It’s the artifacts, artworks, and objects… that [are] most likely to hit [visitor’s] emotional core and create meaning.” An entertaining object, exhibit, or even ad, can create an emotional experience for a visitor, making him come back.

Whale’s heart model. Photo credit: rickardberg flikr.

In a quasi “life imitates art” case, a blue whale’s heart has truly become an entertaining museum object. Special effects company Human Dynamo built a whale’s heart model commissioned by New Zealand museum Te Papa. The model is large enough so that visitors – especially little ones – can climb and crawl through arteries and ventricles. This museum object was a huge hit. Just by browsing flickr for “whale heart model” I could find dozens of photos of children entranced in crawling, and adults posing for scale. The model was so successful in bringing in visitors, that it was borrowed to tour the world and extra models have been requested to stay at Te Papa.

Museum objects — or even everyday objects like a car or racing track — can transcend into an entertaining experience. It can be a moa on the mall, a passing whale’s heart car, or a cheetah-T. rex racing track that will bring more visitors in. However, not only museums profit; simply walking in the street might cause someone to learn that a whale’s heart is a Volkswagen Bug-sized (instead of having to memorize a “two tons” fact). This is “learning by accident” on its core. Similarly, you might leave the museum and not remember the that the cheetah can reach speeds up to 75 mph. But you might remember that it beat you on that race, and crossed the finish line three times faster than you.

Update: do you know a museum exhibit that has crossed the line? Please share in the comments section below!

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