There’s a ton of educational value in museums. The museums of the world are still waiting for you, but the great museums are coming to you in new and exciting ways.
It’s true that, with the proliferation of the Internet, a much larger portion of our population has access to millions of images that previous generations couldn’t even dream of. It's a common write off to say that the Internet is killing the museum for this very reason.
Want to see the Mona Lisa? You can access high-res photos of one of the most famous paintings in the world, in all her original glory and marked up and edited any way you can think of:
So why go to the Louvre, right? Yet there are always crowds of people swarming around to get a look at the painting in person, and the Mona Lisa certainly isn’t the only work of art still getting attention. Why is this?
Art (and the museum it inhabits) is experiential.
Seeing an image of a painting and seeing a painting in person are entirely separate experiences. Your experience with a physical work of art has a richer, immersive visual experience, both in your ability to examine the painting and the surrounding experience created by the museum room it inhabits, and the art displayed around it.
We can collect a digital image at our leisure; in a museum, you have a limited amount of time to savor and process what you are seeing; that perception adds its own unique appeal. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors allow you mere seconds to enjoy them (20–45 seconds in a single room, depending on the exhibition), in response to consumer demand, but even that restrictive scarcity creates experiential value. Performance art in particular is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and what you experience may never happen for anyone else except you and the performer ever.
Art still has social capital because of this, and you know why social capital is increasingly important? The Internet, where we have the opportunity to share our unique moments and thoughts through social media platforms. #art on instagram has over 280 million posts — that’s a huge number on a single network! “But Matt,” you might be thinking, “surely some of that is spam, or independent art, not museum art!” and you’d be right. That brings me to my next point:
Technology isn’t a competitor; it’s an opportunity.
The confluence of content producers and content-hungry audiences online has changed the way we consume. The explosion of the Internet shouldn’t replace museums; it should be a landscape where museums can add to their existing methods of exhibition and outreach and use new channels to fulfill their broader mission. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collection can help you plan your visit, rediscover a piece that moved you, or just browse works that you’re interested in. Send Me SFMOMA can take text tags and help you discover topical art based on interests you feed into it, all for free.
Random images are okay most of the time, but museums have superior resources and scale in terms of collected works, curation ability, and subject matter expertise. A good institution will use their industry and thought leadership to rise to the top of the Internet image pile, rather than hide away in their physical walls waiting for visitors.
Museums are great social destinations.
The big art museum where I live in Dallas regularly hosts late night and after-hours events. Some are themed around major exhibitions, but some are quirky curations, opportunities for learning and discovery, or special guest speakers. In the past year alone, the DMA has hosted a speakeasy style cocktail party, a Frida Kahlo look-alike contest, a Lady Gaga costume contest, art lessons, an opera performance, and so much more.
These are lively events where people of different age groups and interests have tons of fun within a museum setting, often with an artistic context, and always for the benefit of the museum, which carries out important community outreach and maintains free general admission that allows underserved communities to experience the arts. All of this is made possible because people are still passionate about the value they get from museums!
Yes, the landscape has changed. Museums can (and do) change with it. The museum as living generations think of it may continue to adapt to the point where it is barely recognizable, but there is absolutely going to be value in their presence for the foreseeable future.