From Museums for the Elite to Branding and Marketing Museums for Everyone

Part One of Two: Branding and Marketing the Museum

“Cultural institutions are essential for the survival of the human fabric and its patterns. They hold the remaining traces and artifacts of the interactions and processes of life; they capture the knowledge that follows these events.” – David Carr (Carr 1999)

Museums are social arenas where education, understanding, representation, and enrichment of cultures and the sciences happen. However, they did not start out that way. With origins in elitist collecting, often in the form of exoticism and cultural appropriation, the birth of the modern museum came from the French Revolution. Museums became symbols of the new French Republic and revolutionaries and politicians wanted to destroy all traces of the old regime while concurrently preserving French culture that was essentially dependent on the aristocrats and royals (Schubert. 2000.) This dichotomy still exists. Museums were supposed to be for the people; however, the aristocrats have never really left. What emerged was a challenge that has existed for decades: incorporating the old with the new via innovative methods of exhibiting collections (in France it was repurposed royal and religious structures). For a long time, museums largely drew scholars, artists, and the elite. We would see this in the United States as well.

Franz Boas, also known as the “father of American anthropology,” who conceived the first museum exhibition in the Northwest Hall of The American Museum of Natural to value indigenous cultures on their own terms and not in relation to Western cultures (American Museum of Natual History n.d.), wrote in 1907: “The value of the museum as a resort for popular entertainment must not be underrated, particularly in a large city, where every opportunity that is given to the people to employ their leisure time in healthy and stimulating surroundings should be developed, where every attraction that counteracts the influence of the saloon and of the race-track is of great social importance. If a museum is to serve this end, it must, first of all be entertaining, and try to instill by the kind of entertainment offered some useful stimulant.” (Alexander, Alexander and Decker 2017)

Since the 1970’s, museums have undergone fundamental changes stemming from evolving political viewpoints compelling museum professionals to shift their attention from collections towards visitors (Ross 2004). New Museology emerged in the 1980s and considered the role of museums in wider social and political processes, aiming to become more inclusive and accessible and placing visitors at the center of the experience (McCall and Gray 2014). Monica O. Montgomery, Cofounder and Strategic Director of the Museum Hue, notes in Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums: “The practice of diversity is no longer solely the realm of curators and captains of industry; it’s incumbent upon all of us to foster change at every level. If a museum is a mirror and its audience are a monolith, then there’s an internal problem: diversity and inclusion isn’t being centered in the ethos of the institution.”

The Economics of Art Museums (Blattberg and Broderick 1992) noted in 1992 that in the late 1980s, because of the changing tax laws, the donation of artifacts declined (“The number of donated works in 1988 was approximately 37 percent of the 1986 level.”) as well as the new efficiency in the art market (art as a monetary asset). Based on this, museums would need to rely more heavily on sources of revenues such as membership fees, corporate gifts, attendance, and government subsidies to enhance their collections. This report also notes that “…museums have a social responsibility to broaden their target audience to include less well-educated viewers in order to justify government subsidies. Thus, museums are forced to reconcile opposing desires in determining their mission or objectives.”

Over the last 30 years museums have understood the importance of adopting different communication and marketing techniques. Museum marketing is unique because museums have a mission to, first and foremost, educate the public while concurrently building an audience and revenue. The Economics of Art Museums devoted a chapter to museum marketing and noted that back in 1992, there were problems. Specifically, the curatorial staff, who are the product designers by proxy, did little research to understand what the audience wanted. Instead, they designed exhibits which they feel the visitor should see. The marketing department was then tasked with trying to convince the public that they should see these exhibits. The book recommends that “Achieving a museum’s full potential in the marketplace depends on the integrated effort of all departments to produce and deliver the museum’s product.” (Blattberg and Broderick 1992)

The Association of Art Museum Directors annual salary survey of 1989 detailed that fewer than one-fifth of the member museums had a Director of Marketing (17%). The percentage nearly tripled by 1999 to 50% (Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis 2001). Interestingly, if you compare the 2017 (Association of Art Museum Directors 2017) and 2021 Association of Art Museum Directors annual salary surveys (Association of Art Museum Directors 2021), there has been an increase in salary expenses: the Western region has seen quite the spike and the Midwest has also increased spending while Mountain Plains states have decreased spending. The Mid-Atlantic states continue to lead in salaries.

Branding and Marketing the Museum

“To many outside of the museum, hiring the architectural team to design the building was the most important decision I would make. I disagreed. Bringing on the designer who work closely with a large team of educators, curators, collection specialists, and project managers to produce the exhibitions upon which the reputation of the museum rested was the most significant and thorniest decision.” – Lonnie G. Bunch III (Bunch 2019)

The importance of graphic design in museums is more than just a simple placard: it is congruent with the overall branding and marketing. A brand is the idea or image people have in mind, both in a practical and emotional way, when thinking about specific products, services, or a museum. It is not just the physical features that create a brand but also the feelings that visitors develop towards the museum. Branding includes the creation of a logo, a tagline, social media, and marketing strategies while congruently considering accessibility and technology. The American Marketing Association defines branding as follows: “A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” (American Marketing Association 2017)

In 2014 The Guardian (Jones 2014) reported that, “The people who run museums have, over the past 20 years, learned to love the word “brand” – it’s now seen as an essential tool for leadership.” The article also notes that institutions like the Met have always had a strong identity and reputation with clear expectations regarding what audiences will find. However, until recently, this tended to happen organically. Museums have been putting more thought into what they stand for and managing their identity deliberately.

Last year, Museum Next (Coates 2021) noted that a successful brand communicates the essence of the museum. When branding works, it can generate publicity and bring more visitors. A good branding strategy encompasses the typical facets such as the logo, but it also includes social media branding. Social media provides a great opportunity for institutions to talk directly to the public. When this is successful, museums have used a unifying tone of voice and message throughout their communications which ties in with their overarching brand identity. While branding and marketing go together, they are two separate concepts, with marketing campaigns heavily impacted by the brand. Branding is timeless, as we have seen with museums like The Met, while marketing is current as we see with museum blockbuster shows such as The Met’s Costume Institute annual show.

The Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis defines museum marketing as identifying leisure-time recreation needs and wants of potential audiences, mostly unmet needs, as well as Identifying ways in which potential audiences can be informed about and attracted to museum experiences (Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis 2001). The American Marketing Association defines marketing as follows: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” (American Marketing Association 2017)

Museum marketing doesn’t have to be costly, but it should certainly be creative. One excellent example was in 2014, when The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco made an announcement that it had “lost” its Chinese terracotta warrior and asked for help from its visitors and followers. Using Facebook, YouTube, and Google Maps, participants were asked to help the warrior make his way back to the museum. The museum also posted flyers that read: “LOST: Male, 2,122 years old, doesn’t speak English.” According to the San Francisco Business Times, the terracotta warriors campaign generated 15,000 new followers on Twitter and triple traffic to its website. The exhibition drew a record-breaking 238,000 visitors. “We know that the audience we want to reach is really connected to social media and technology,” said Ami Tseng, director of marketing for the Asian Art Museum. “We just had to figure out a way to reach them.” (Frojo 2014) I loved that this marketing campaign predated the popular game Pokémon Go by two years. The game uses mobile devices with GPS to locate, capture, train, and battle virtual creatures, called Pokémon, which appear as if they are in the player’s real-world location.

NEXT MONTH: Surveys of logos, typefaces, and color!

Edwin Roman’s recent book of photography, Brooklyn: Black and White, is now available. All proceeds will be donated to American Kidney Fund.

Works Cited

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