Museum brand

Museum communication: contradictions and some proposals

At the end of a course I attended in 1990, California University of San Francisco organized a small trip to nearby Berkeley, just across the bridge. The group was made up of Europeans and Japanese people, and we were all euphemistically incredulous in front of the triumphalism of a teacher, in admiration of a bell tower similar to those found in the smaller and most modest towns of Veneto. To the enthusiastic exclamation «it is very old, it is almost ninety years old», I, catching different levels of irony on onlookers faces, did not hold back a comment: «So now, it’s time to check the oil».

But then, even though I was a stranger to museum culture, I realized that she was right.

Immediately I was reminded of the Smithsonian Institute Museums, which I had visited during my first trip trough the United States. Accustomed, in Italy, to an orgy of antiquity, too often forgotten in warehouses and never exhibited, it seemed incredible to me that immense and innovative buildings, lined up in front of the obelisk dedicated to George Washington, in the federal capital, hosting themes normally considered non-museums, such as neon signs, contemporary or vintage.

Static culture or exciting storytelling?

As a journalist faithful to Longanesi’s description (one who describes very well what he does not know) I compared trivial concepts such as the Italian achromatic museums, which contained invaluable treasures, with the spectacular ones of those who must enhance objects of lesser value and attract much larger sections of the population by inviting them with more immediate messages. And I wondered, first of all, if the word “culture” had so many meanings, so distant that it did not cross the oceans. Or if it is a matter of different sensitivities, maybe saturation of priceless goods, which make indifferent those who live in Rome and have never visited the Colosseum, or in Florence: Uffizi.

The second question I asked myself is whether it is not the case to engage in a real revolution in the way to spread the museum communication which concerns thousands of very different realities, in terms of size, importance, peculiarity. A brave turning point to transform static culture into an exciting narrative, making it part of everyday life. Of many, certainly not all.

Television and internet opportunities

Communicators and experts have different points of view, sometimes very distant. Those who manage a museum or a gallery often distrust methods related to market logic. The communicator often risks trivialization to get straight to the heart, and, why not, to people’s bellies, breaking down otherwise immovable obstacles. Almost all television networks need a high share that guarantees the profit (in some cases, the survival). But they can not survive without and the credibility of cultural “fig leaves” that attest to their generic utility, counterbalancing the inevitable falls in style of many programs.

However, the internet and television itself may offer other interesting opportunities: for example, the virtual visits of some museums, during the lockdown for Covid, created some extraordinary ideas, and also made use of the public’s free time and availability. It is not excluded that this is a first step to route many people towards visits they would never have thought to make. Therefore, continuing and spreading these initiatives even outside the emergency can be a not insignificant idea.

The unequal struggle between entrenched heritage and consumerism

But first of all, we need to understand what goal we want to pursue and with how much effort. In other words, how much we think that could be important to popularize what is now wrongly considered. If national and local policies decide to commit themselves (I have reason to doubt it) strategies should be entrusted to communicators, to translate and filter the thinking of professionals and transmit it by inventing pleasant involvements.

In all fields, advertisers tend to think that a deep knowledge of the subject makes it a little more difficult for professionals to identify people’s curiosities and open glimmers that welcome culture and art, and stimulate minds distracted by many colourful nothings. Furthermore, since in this era everything is brand, everything is business, the titanic struggle between rooted heritage and consumerism is unequal.

Attractive exhibitions

Another theme to be explored is the temporary exhibitions which attract more than museums, overall because they are an opportunity to be seized, and, particularly, events that mythologize a single painting, creating more fashion than culture. I remember, for example, the tour of the Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1665) Girl with the pearl earring, with long queues all over the world. They are excellent initiatives that polarize attention, but risk creating distorted scales of values, narrowing the myth and even the simple interest to very few examples, not always the most significant. It is undeniable that initiatives like this create a lot of media coverage. But the spread of museum culture must follow a policy, as far as possible, harmonious, with substantial differences between the main institutions and small realities. Who has never dreamed of attracting fans from all over the world?

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1665), Girl with the pearl earring, ca 1665, oil on canvas.
L’Aia, Mauritshuis Royal Cabinet
Some ideas for the future

And if the globe is perhaps too big, the European dimension could also be crossed in collaboration with those airlines (the discussed Ryanair above all) that implement widespread policies, receiving significant economic contributions and airport services in exchange for important numbers of passengers on minor stopovers. In many cases it could be possible to launch small pearl earring-style campaigns on objects of great interest that could become cult. In tow, the entire museum and, why not, a larger area can be enhanced. Of course, these projects include renovations, modernizations and paths aimed at connote the protagonist object, inserting it in a compelling story together with the rest of the exhibition.

And it is certain that museums, especially those in provincial cities, must escape the logic that sees them too often as individual and impenetrable potentates to enter into a network synchrony that in average times can give good results.

But this is another problem and goes beyond communication, although it is an essential premise.

Gian Stefano Spoto

Gian Stefano Spoto

Gian Stefano Spoto, journalist, was Raidue and Rai International deputy director, then Middle East Rai correspondent. He wrote five books: the last one, Deserto bianco  (Graphofeel ed.), about Middle East from Gaza war till today.