Out of frame
Behind the scenes at your favorite museums
Museums are economic engines,” reads a fact sheet published by the American Alliance of Museums. And there follows a staggering list of statistics: Museums employ more than 400,000 Americans and directly contribute $21 billion to the economy every year. “Arts and cultural production constitute 4.32% of the entire U.S. economy, a $698 billion industry, more than construction ($586.7 billion) or transportation and warehousing ($464 billion),” continues the well-intentioned list of talking points.
Leaders of the nonprofit cultural sector have been citing statistics like these for years. It is a staple of their lobbying campaigns for funding from Congress and state legislatures, and part of the appeal they make to private donors concerned about the impact of their philanthropy. But these statistics are mostly meaningless to the general public, and don’t have much influence on how the country thinks about its cultural institutions. That isn’t to say they aren’t true, or shouldn’t factor into our understanding. But if one assesses meaning by what people care about, it’s clear this argument has had little traction over the years.
Perhaps it’s because the language seems slippery to skeptics: “they constitute a percentage of . . . ” and “annually generates $135 billion economic activity” and “billions more through indirect spending . . .” Basic political instincts also deflate the impact. Someone who doesn’t believe in public funding for the cultural sector will simply say: Well, if they’re already such a huge part of the economy, why throw more tax dollars at them? And someone from the other side of the political spectrum might grouse: Must everything be measured in dollars? Isn’t the real value intangible and insusceptible to economic metrics?
But much of the problem may be simply a matter of what we can see, and what we can’t. Construction is everywhere around us, disrupting our lives. Transportation is a daily fact of existence. We know what it costs to operate a car, or take a train, so we can easily extrapolate some sense of the vastness of the transportation industry. Perhaps if every museum was part of two or three huge monopolistic cultural corporations, branded with the same signage and housed in similar-looking buildings like fast-food franchises, the size of the museum sector would be more palpable.
That’s not the way the museum industry — an infelicitous phrase — works. Museums are independent and independent-minded. They may cooperate, and should cooperate more, but they live or die depending on their particular excellence, individual leadership and mostly local appeal. The diversity among museums — covering history, art, science, technology, craft and such thematic topics as crime, sex, religion and spying — is dizzying. Even among museums in a single category, say, art, every museum is sui generis.
That is, of course, their strength. One goes to a museum not for generic experience, the way one goes to Applebee’s, or a Six Flags park. Museums include among their ranks some of the most sophisticated and wealthy private institutions in the country, but in a sense, they are all mom-and-pop. So one must look at particulars to understand them. And if we are to sense the size and scope of museums on a national level, we also must look backstage, at the huge amount of work performed behind the scenes and invisible to the public.
This year, The Washington Post’s annual museum section does just that, exploring an array of jobs within the museum world that are either mostly out of sight or involve skills and expertise that are generally undetected by or unfamiliar to the public. So among those 400,000 Americans employed in the often nebulous-seeming “museum industry,” consider the warrior wrangler, the sound guy, the lighting expert, the impresario and the futurist. Add to those the more familiar backstage workers — the education expert, the conservator and the administrator — and perhaps the real size of the museum industry will make more intuitive sense.