Monday, August 22, 2005

Unique or merely significant?

"In the long run, we suspect tourists are more likely to plan a visit to see something unique rather than something that is significant, but that can be seen in greater quantities elsewhere." Charity Governance.

Which would you more likely travel to see?

Charity Governance has some comments on the proposed gift of $25 million worth of Rodin sculptures to the North Carolina Museum of Art (It appears that the gift to NC would cost another $115 million or so), then segues briefly into the finances of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The writer for Charity Governance seems to think that raising taxes for culture is an economic benefit, an idea I find highly questionable. I think free money is a bad idea: it permits disfunctional behavior to continue without cost to the recipient. Welfare for the culturati is bad for those very culturati. They just don't understand that. Raising taxes is also a bad idea in itself: it discourages businesses from locating or expanding there. Discouraging business is hardly a tool for economic development.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has quite a few unusual collections which it could highlight in exhibits, and those collections could be all the better if they made commitments to those collections, hired interested and qualified curators to build those collections (and allowed them to do so- no, make that "required" them to do so- rather than the current "make it damn near impossible to do so"), and marketed the results both within the area and to the seriously interested public around the country- or even the world.

Reaching the seriously interested would result in trivial additional visitors, but after the interested realized that the museum has a track record of interest, it would be far easier to get donations of money and objects from those very people who have much of the best stuff in their own collections.

How often do serious collectors give their favorite material to institutions with a demonstrated lack of interest? The shame is that it does happen from time to time. Perhaps more accurately, collectors give to museums which briefly profess interest, then a curator leaves and the institutional lack of commitment emerges as the dominant force. Over the years collectors realize that, and refuse to support the institution. That happens all the time with museums with a poor mission focus.

I don't know what the Milwaukee Public Museum should focus on, and it isn't my responsibility to decide. They have plenty of interesting collections to choose from, tho: antique typewriters and business machines, guns- with considerable strengths in ignition systems and 19th century American military firearms, glass- especially Victorian glass, waterfowl decoys, clocks, posters, Northwest Coast Indian material including the third biggest collection of NW Coast masks in the US, postage stamps of the world, costumes (clothes). The Milwaukee Public Museum has all sorts of interesting things which it demonstrates a long term lack of interest in.

I don't believe that any serious collector who knows the situation would consider giving them anything significant. If there is one I'd love to hear from him or her about why they would do so. The museum does little with what it has. Why give them more to ignore?

Back to that opening statement from Charity Governance: I think one must distinguish between the local/regional market and the long distance traveler who is deciding where to go to see collections. The latter is a very small group. Most of the locals may be too uninterested to know or care that a collection is lousy: look at the pleasure people show in the gun room at House on the Rock . Last time I was there (only time, for that matter) I guessed that 99+% of the "antique" guns were very low quality modern reproductions. So far as I could tell, I was the only one there who knew that, much less cared.

Their market was happy with stuff I think wasn't real much less good. Maybe they thought the "antique" guns were "unique" rather than significant. ("Unusual" may be a better term here than "unique", tho.) One might make similar comments about nearly everything at House on the Rock: everything is unusual, but little is good or significant. Result: The place packs them in, half a million of them a year at $15 a head. The Milwaukee Public Museum may be very lucky that House on the Rock isn't across the street.

Why is it so difficult for a museum with resources like those of MPM to focus itself and market itself? Why can't it make a commitment to being excellent at something? Why does it waste interesting collections? Why does it waste good curators?

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Monday, August 22, 2005 at 8:32:00 PM HST  

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