Mining and society are intricately connected. We are so dependent upon mining that it is far more realistic to question how, when, and where we will mine than to question if we will mine.
But this brings forth some serious challenges. The resources we depend upon are finite, and we are consuming an ever-increasing amount of them. At the current rate of growth in consumption, it will not be long before we will need more resources than our planet can provide. What will we do then?
More significantly, what can and will we do to prevent this scenario from unfolding?
‘Rethink’ is an exploration into how society can become sustainable and what roles all of us play in achieving this goal. It is a call to action to begin the change now, with the recognition of the factors that can drive or inhibit such change. Most importantly, it is a dialogue on how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
Think back to your last museum visit. Did the institution attempt to draw you into its retail space? Did it force you to enter into its retail space? Did it even have a retail space?
There is no doubt of the important role these museum gift shops have to play in the viability of many museums as public funding has diminished. Yet, it does raise an important question regarding the roles of museums: Is this focus on the business of the museum changing what it means to be a museum? In other words, are museums becoming institutions of consumerism as they focus on the bottom line?
It is easy to defend the operation of a museum gift shop on the premise that without its revenue there will be no museum. If the question is one of whether or not there is a museum, in most cases it is most likely the vote would be for a museum with retail than no museum at all, if those were the only choices.
Yet as museums struggle to maintain or establish their relevancy to a large enough portion of the population that they can become self-sufficient, are they falling victim to a culture that places more focus on individual immediate gratification than on the missions many museums were founded upon?
One argument is that as a business, the institution must adapt or perish – a true adapt or die approach. Yet, not all things should be, or perhaps even can be, run based on sales numbers alone. Take transit, for example. Some bus routes in any major city will be well utilized, while others will not be. If each route was evaluated on its ridership alone, those with low ridership might get cut for being ‘not cost effective’. Yet without extension of the transit network out into the less densely populated regions, people will be forced to use cars, which if they flow to the more congested areas of town, will increase congestion and thus undermine one objective of public transit.
Turning back to museums, when the focus is forced to be on financial sustainability, there comes a risk that an institution could take actions based on a bottom line that ultimately undermine its founding intentions. At this point, the argument of ‘adapt or die’ gets played. The question however is ‘adapt into what’? As museums struggle through this redefining, based on a need to put people through the doors, what exactly are they to become? As products and services that serve smaller segments of their communities get cut due to ‘low attendance’, and are replaced with programs and exhibits with wider appeal, especially to those with deeper pockets, given the ever increasing admission rates, are we witnessing the gentrification of museums?
Gentrification is a contentious topic in urban planning. The same should be true for museums.
Are museums demonstrating leadership in the cultural sector or chasing after the next ‘thing’ they believe the fickle population at large will buy into? Are they caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, being forced to chase after visitation while still attempting to honour their mandates? This is the point where the argument for publicly funded museums comes forward, for museums, like public transit, are more than their face value presents, for they are both tools, in a brutal way, of social engineering. Good transit can shape how people move about, where museums have the ability to shape people’s views of the world.
So what messages are museums putting forward, and what messages are they not putting forward? Looking at the history of museums, the answer is clear, and it comes down to ‘who is paying for this?’ For the most part, this has not caused too much of an issue for museums, and where it has it has been where there seemed to be a clear conflict of interest between sponsor and program.
So who is paying for this now?
Increasingly, it is the visitor, and if the history of the sponsor shapes the message continues, then it is the visitor that will increasingly shape the messages museums put forward. This is already happening with collaborative and participatory exhibits and programs.
But there is one other place the visitor is being asked to participate as well, and that is in the gift shop.
There are many things that are so deeply ingrained within our culture we don’t even think about them. Within a culture of consumption, of expectation that everywhere we go we have access to purchasable goods, it is possible that a museum without a gift shop would get questioned as to why there isn’t one by visitors. The question is ‘why do we need a souvenir?’ Souvenirs can act as powerful triggers of memories, which can make their acquisition so compelling,but do we need them? Do we need anything sold in museum gift shops? Of course not, yet the power of impulse shopping is so strong that museums can’t seem to keep themselves from tapping into it.
Museums have begun to shift from preserving culture to selling culture. With this shift, some exhibits are driven in part by what they can sell. Does this make museums any different than any large corporate brand? Is there a decreasing difference between a Nike Store and a museum? The lines are blurred. Both are selling an experience, a feeling. The difference, for now at least, is how much of the displays can be purchased.
It is in this regard that museums, in their quest to be relevant, have become exactly that which is said to drive our economy. They have become large branded
retail operations, selling emotion and product. They have become Cultural Institutions of Consumption.
Is that what we, as a society, want our cultural institutions to represent?
Photo:Daderot / Wikicommons