A Forum for Discussions among Voyagers and Others related to the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan
From: Michelle Moon
Date: 2014 Jul 30, 14:42 -0700
Interesting thoughts, Frank. There is much here to respond to, but I wanted to offer a couple of responses:
First and a minor point, a union effort is not unique among museums. Museums that have seen a union effort within the past decade, or currently have an active union within their workforces, include the Legion of Honor Museum (San Francisco), The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the DuSable Museum (Chicago), The Lower East Side Tenement Museum (NYC), the Smithsonian Institutions (DC), The Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Dumbarton Oaks (DC), the Oakland Museum (CA), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), to name a few. It is probably no great surprise that so many attempts have proliferated in an era sadly characterized by the extreme budget and program cuts necessitated by the economic climate, particularly during acute periods such as 2001-03 (following 9/11 and dramatic shifts in funding priorities and attendance) and the painful drastic drops of 2008-09. Museums are wonderful workplaces, but even in an ideal climate they generally do have some unique tensions arising from their unusual character as places where required skill and care levels - even for the most basic functions - are high, and compensation - at every level and of all kinds - is relatively low compared to similar functions in the private sector. Further challenges are caused by the variances of seasonality, project-based 'soft money' funding, and experimentation across the field with varying leadership philosophies over the last few decades. I speak generally of all museums, noting that many Mystic Seaport's difficult experiences have not been unique - though their sincere efforts to address those tensions, strengthen relationships, and get the entire community focused on important projects such as this are laudable, and out of the ordinary. What is clear is that Mystic Seaport is singularly blessed with staff at every level, leaders, volunteers, members, and supporters that care a very great deal about the institution's survival and the quality of its offerings. Many history museums are not so fortunate as to have such an engaged community of support, even if at times that community differs as to how problems might be solved.
But second, and I think important in understanding the position of this and other history museums around the country, attendance decline was also not unique to Mystic Seaport. It is a systemic decline seen across the board in this country's history museums since the mid-1990s, a steady downward trend overall, and only a few institutions have been able to effect a reversal. I don't have much time to elaborate, so I will quote an excerpt and footnote from a paper I just submitted to The Public Historian:
"For well over a decade, gloomy professional conversations have noted shrinking annual attendance numbers across major historic-site destinations and local history organizations. Theories abound, from the dropping cost of air travel, to more leisure time choices, demographic fluctuations, lack of interest resulting from poor history education, and steep declines in foundation funding. One, all, ora combination of these causes may be responsible for the existential threat to any one institution, but no matter the specifics, history organizations have
been taking desperate measures: layoffs, ‘‘austerity’’ cuts to program budgets and scope, decreased collecting and exhibition activity. Public historians bemoan the relative paucity of resources devoted to their projects by a society that simply seems no longer to care about history. Summarizing a litany of dire predictions in 2007, Cary Carson cited fears within the field that the history museum itself might be obsolete, going the way of the Automat on a ‘‘nosedive to oblivion.’’ (Cary Carson, ‘‘The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?’’ The Public Historian 30,no. 4 (Fall 2008): 9). Carson’s comments reflected the tenor of a painful and protracted era of field-wide introspection and examination. Individual institutions had been noticing attendance declines at least by the late 1990s, but the dramatic events of 2001 disrupted patterns of travel, spending, and leisure time use and sparked serious discussion of the present and future viability of public history institutions. In April 2002, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) partnered with The National Trust for Historic Preservation to convene the first Kykuit Summit, a gathering at which leaders in public history began to ponder the questions challenging
the field as a whole. Meanwhile, the Trust’s president, Richard Moe, asked the pointed question ‘‘Are There Too Many Historic Houses?’’ in the group’s Forum Journal 16, no. 3 (2002). In 2006, original summit partners were joined by the American Association of Museums and the American Architectural Foundation for a ‘‘Kykuit II’’ meeting on the sustainability of historic sites. See http://download.aaslh.org/historyþnews/VogtHNSmr07.pdf.
These meetings resulted in the development of a standards program for history institutions (AASLH’s StEPs) and an AASLH Technical Leaflet including a checklist of ‘‘Characteristics of Historic House Museums in Peril,’’ http://download.aaslh.org/technicalþleaflets/TechþLeafþ244.pdf. Following further blows to endowments and consumer spending following the 2008 economic crisis, and in an attempt to
quantify the perceived decline and correct the general lack of reliable and comparable figures on attendance across the field, AAM in 2009 began an Annual Condition of Museums and the Economy (ACME) Survey, revealing continuing financial stress and low participation levels
2009-2012. See http://www.aam-us.org/resources/research. The popular press also took note of the crisis in history organizations, publishing pieces like ‘‘Struggling to Attract Visitors, Historic Houses May Face Day of Reckoning’’ (J. Freedom du Lac, Washington Post, December 22, 2012). Finally, in ‘‘Attendance Slide: A Call to Action,’’ the consulting group Reach Advisers cited National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, saying ‘‘museums are losing attendance on both measures of audience share and size,’’ with history museums having lost more than 8 million visitors since their peak. . . . This drying-up of the pipeline imperils. . . history museums, because if it is not reversed, obsolescence lies ahead,’’ http:// reachadvisors.typepad.com/museum_audience_insight/2013/09/the-attendance-slide-a-call-toaction.html"
So, we can't attribute the attendance decline and consequent need of a 'reboot' to failings on Mystic Seaport's part alone. Some of the things that have troubled this or any institution are much larger - in many cases, having to do simply with vastly increased consumer choice and opportunity, a decreasing middle class with the easy spending ability that matched the cost of history museums, and a decreasing values gap between those museums and a public transformed by cultural and generational change. The triumphal, simplistic, what some have called "filiopietistic" or ancestor-worshipping modes of the past are no longer sought out uncritically by museum audiences. Personal relevance, and relevance to questions in active public debate, are more important than ever. History museums are struggling to communicate a value proposition to a public that, legitimately, wonders "Why should I care? What do these objects, ideas, histories have to do with the things I care about or that bring me interest and pleasure?" That is a serious question and one museums sorely need to address.
I think the 38th Voyage is a remarkable success in demonstrating that history has something to offer those public questions and the kinds of personal experiences sought by contemporary people. Its interdisciplinarity, broad thematic focus, wise use of media, multiple ways of participating, and daring execution (because it had inherent risks) are an incredibly inspiring example of how museums might reimagine their value proposition, from the ideas they have to offer, to the uses they make of their collection and the experiences they provide their constituencies.
At the same time, I don't think any one finite project is enough on its own to 'reboot' any museum; if there were no further reimagining of the Morgan and the general interpretation of Mystic Seaport's collection, it would be just what it is, a highly unusual standalone event. On the contrary, it is an event that extends forward into the future. I expect and hope that it leaves a lot more ripple effects. It is a dramatic demonstration of what can happen when a history museum shares authority, invites participation, connects disparate fields, and focuses on the emotional power of events and live experience. Because of the imaginative way it was structured, it's actually far too early to be able to measure the outcome of this project for the many who participated in such different ways. The project is unique in that Mystic Seaport pursued its goals while also investing in and embracing open-ended outcomes, in which the museum was willing to cede control, allowing multiple interpretations, readings, and products to emerge - many of which have not yet been fully conceived by their creators, and may not be visible for some time. That is groundbreaking in and of itself.
So instead of asking "did this voyage work to 'reboot' Mystic Seaport?" I would ask "Did this voyage meet its own explicit goals - promote dialogue about whales and ocean conservation, share the Morgan's stories in ways that are harder to get at dockside, host an 'adventure' done with 'academic rigor and authenticity,' among others, and also "Did the voyage allow Mystic Seaport to develop and pilot new kinds of audience engagement, thinking about objects, and intepretive ideas that might help infuse the overall museum experience with new energy?"
The spirit of the voyage will, I think, live on, and have wide impact on the way other projects are conceived. But no single project, no matter how wonderful and attention-getting, can transform an entire institution or, for that matter, an entire field. The only thing that has the power to do that is intent. By applying the philosophical foundations of this project across the field, history museums like Mystic Seaport can continue to develop the ability to ask bigger, more interesting questions, draw in wider audiences, and provide truly memorable and meaningful moments for current and future audiences.