Quite recently, a bit of a stir was created in the museum world with the release of an ad for McDonald's which compared the value of $5 spent at said restaurant vs. at a museum.
Full disclosure: I have not heard the ad myself. This article is based entirely on the responses from a handful of people in the museum industry and my own take on those responses. It should be noted that as a result of the response of said people, the ad was pulled.
In summary, the essence (as I take it) of the responses to the ad had two key points. First, that they disagreed with the suggestion that greater value is found from spending $5 at McDonald's compared to at a museum. Second, the ad was taken as a slight against the hard work people in the museum world do in creating valuable enriching experiences for their visitors.
That said, is 5$ spent at McDonald's a better value than $5 spent at a museum?
The answer, of course, is that it depends on who you ask. Put another way, the answer depends on the relevancy of the product offered to the person asked.
So what is more relevant - the burger or the museum visit? Why are we even asking this question? It does seem a bit comical, but let's explore this a bit
For this comparison, we will classify both a museum visit and eating at McDonald's a 'luxury'.
Imagine yourself thinking ‘I feel like going out and treating myself, should I go to McDonald's or to the local museum?’. Take it even further and imagine asking ‘Should I go to McDonald's, the museum, the library, or should I rent a movie, buy a couple new songs, buy a book, or something else that would cost $5 or less?’ This is the reality museums face. Every day people are choosing whether or not a museum is the best place to spend their money and time. The disappointing news for museums is that people are increasingly choosing to spend their money and time elsewhere, including McDonald's.
This is the point where I could easily reference the various recent trendy topics in the museum world – topics on inclusivity, participatory development, third spaces, and adopting new technologies. These are all good conversations which are happening now, and they all have one common element – relevancy.
It is my view that while museums play an important role in preserving cultural history, the traditional approaches of programs and exhibits may not be
the most relevant way to access their knowledge in the future. Museums are already being supplanted, and the industry as a whole is primed for disruption.
One of the biggest challenges museums face comes from within – the people which work in them. While I admire that museum people are so passionate about
what they do, and believe so fully in the worth of their work – and it does have real worth, the problem is that these very same people are so close
to and so vested in 'the way' things are done, they are not responding to the changing realities of our world. In other words, museums have gone from
housing dinosaurs to becoming dinosaurs.
Well, some have, and some have not (at least yet).
Perhaps we could all chuckle at the notion of a wagon wheel manufacturer becoming offended if an historic ad placed the value of his craftsmanship as rather low, because after all, comedy is the product of tragedy and time.
Herein is the real bite of the McDonald's ad. It came too soon. The change is happening. Enough has happened that it was even feasible to consider comparing a museum visit to a hamburger. But museums are still here. The dinosaurs are still alive, and they have shown their roar is pretty loud.
The question is what will come next? Will this win for the museums (the ad being pulled) result in a furthering of the discussion on the future of museums,
or will it fade into memory in the same way that museums themselves might also?
In summary, museums have done some pretty amazing things. They have also done many things that honestly can be considered of less value than a hamburger to some. So be it. If we want to see museums in some form continue to play an important public facing role in society, they will need to adapt, or get left behind by that which disrupts the niche they occupy.