Call me old-fashioned, but I insist that a ‘museum’ is nothing if not for its permanent content and collections. That is why I’ve blogged previously that the ArtScience Museum in Singapore is strictly ‘not’ a ‘museum’ as it does not have its own permanent collection of artefacts that it curates and cares for; it’s simply a space for temporary exhibitions.
So what do you ‘do’ as a museum? I’m glad to see that at least on the ‘artefact’ front, our National Heritage Board museums actively display, care for, purchase, acquire etc its own permanent objects. But a museum is more than the sum of its ‘displays’; it is also where programs catering to all walks of life bring these ‘still’ artefacts and exhibitions to life. And unless a museum has ‘killer’ artefacts that would draw visitors even if there are no other activities planned around the static displays (think of the millions who head to MET, British Museum, Lourve without ever taking part in any of their programs at all), it is this ‘public programming’ that makes a museum evermore relevant and exciting.
I remember the good ol’ days in our NHB museums where curators and programs staff rolled up sleeves and worked on ‘programs’. No, they didn’t just plan these programs; some of them actually ‘led’ them too. It was not so long ago when they told stories to enchanted kids, helped adults weave their own bookmark etc. This direct contact between staff and visitors made a museum ‘personal’, because the end-users could put a ‘face’ to the museum beyond its cold, darkened galleries. Now, the only contact that a visitor might have with a museum staff when it comes to programs is if he pays $12/head (limited to 15 max) to join a 1hr curator’s tour of an exhibition.
‘Whatever happened to the other programs’, you ask? They are still running, but they have almost all been outsourced to non-museum outsiders. So when there’s a temporary exhibition, the museum staff would get quotes from external companies to not just ‘plan’ the adults’/kids’ programs, but also to provide the staff to execute these programs. I’ve been peeking into some of these quotes, and one recently awarded one is paying tens of thousands of dollars to a single company to plan/run kids’ programs for a single local museum. And mind you, this is the norm.
Money well spent? Perhaps for a museum that has a headcount freeze (and therefore justifying that there are not enough of their own staff to run the programs themselves) AND lots of money set aside for such external vendors. But on the other hand, visitors would not be getting ‘intimate’ time with the museum-staff, who are the ones with the inside knowledge and passion for ‘heritage’ (and presumably not these external staff who must be in it for the money only). I should know. I once sent my child to a storytelling-cum-craft workshop (that I paid $20+ for) and found the 2 non-museum facilitators lacking; they took way too long to tell the story and left too little time for the craft session, and they didn’t even guide the kids with the craft activity to boot! When I emailed the museum’s staff to complain that I felt the program lacked ‘warmth’ and was not well thought-out, the museum staff replied that the program was ‘outsourced’ and they would ‘supervise’ the vendors more closely in the future. (Come to think of it, I don’t even remember any museum staff who was present during this program for any significant period of time, beyond collecting my fees!) So much for ‘service recovery; I’ve not paid for another program with that museum since.
So for the people who are in control, hear this: It may be very easy to justify why you should outsource the programs of your museum. But keep in mind that if you want to ‘connect’ with your visitors on an intimate basis, getting strangers (instead of staff) to interact with them on contents that-should-be-the-core-knowledge/expertise of a museum (i.e. objects, their stories and the staff who are most familiar with them) is a missed opportunity of moving a museum’s public-profile from ‘ok’ to ‘great’. You wouldn’t be happy if you paid for dinner in well-decked-out chi-chi restaurant only to find out that the entire food-offerings – its ‘core business’, if you will – have been prepared by at offsite kitchen, would you??