The relationship of museums to the market has a storied past. Historically in the U.S., there are two branches of thought about a museum’s role in society. In 1843, P.T. Barnum purchased Peale’s curiosities chamber and decided to add to it with “exotic” animals and “bizarre” humans—creating, in effect, freak shows that contextualized static objects and live entertainment in much the same way, and encouraged shock, awe, and amusement. At the same time, a request left in the will of a Brit named James Smithson petitioned the U.S. Congress for a government-funded, public institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” That gave birth to America’s frontier of scientific exploration and cataloguing, the Smithsonian Institution. A tension between entertainment and pedagogy arises, one in which capitalism rewards the former.
The pressure that museums feel to serve up entertainment has been on the upswing over the past century. In a 1998 article
in the journal Museum International
, Kenneth Hudson, after examining nearly 40 over-200-year-old pioneering institutions, concludes that “the most fundamental change that has affected museums during the [past] half century… is the now almost universal conviction that they exist in order to serve the public…. The museum’s prime responsibility was to its collections, not to its visitors.” While this study is over 30 years old, the effects of that shift are now institutionalized. One need only look to the shifting language of museum departments: education is now often replaced by or paired with “public engagement.”
Weil, who on top of having been the Smithsonian’s resident museum scholar was also the former director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
, wrote in 1999, in the academic journal Daedalus
, that “Museums almost everywhere, in essence, have shifted from a ‘selling’ mode to a ‘marketing’ one.” He continues: “In marketing mode, their starting point instead is the public’s own needs and interests, and their efforts are concentrated on first trying to discover and then attempting to satisfy those public needs and interests.” In 2015, the visitor is a consumer, not only of the artworks in question but of the museum as a brand.