Out of frame

Be­hind the scenes at your fa­vorite mu­se­ums

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

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.



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