Four success factors of US museums

(What) Can we learn from US museums?

Having visited 7 New York museums in 6 days I would like to give you a short summary of my impressions while they are still fresh. Why are the museums in New York so popular apart from the touristic factor? In what way do US museums differ from German museums? Do they pursue different strategies as compared with German museums? Let’s take a look at my experiences.

1. The Price Factor

Many museums such as the Metropolitan Museum or Brooklyn Museum pursue the so-called „pay what you want” strategy which gives the visitors the opportunity to choose a ticket price at their own discretion. In order to give people a kind of guidance there are recommended prices but there is no obligation to follow them. This turned out to be really helpful for me as I am not used to this price policy. In fact I felt lost and unsure about what might be the ‘correct’ thing to do – might be a typical German reaction. On the other hand I appreciate the new role of being able to take my decision, even if I would have preferred to decide AFTER the museum visit and not before it. ‘Pay what you want’ offers people a kind of self-determination which puts them on eye-level with the museum. By the way, a few weeks ago the topic ‘Free entrance in museums’ was discussed by Prof. Dr. Bernd Günter (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf), Dr. Tobia Bezzola (Museum Folkwang, Essen) and Prof. Martin Roth (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). Click here to hear the discussion.

 2. The Service Factor

Smiling people at the ticket counter, helpful and informed security guides, good-humored lift operators – yes, it’s true! The well-known all-American kindness is not a myth. At one museum the cashier spontaneously invited my parents to visit the museum for free, at another one the lift operator waited patiently for a couple of children arguing whether they should enter the lift or not, all security guides offered valuable information when being asked and not one cashier wanted to see the IDs of my parents when requested the recommended senior discount (and they really look young!). On the whole I really felt most welcome which made the museum visit more enjoyable and agreeable.

 3. The Social Factor

There is a difference concerning the atmosphere in all New York based museums as compared to German museums: At the Museum of Modern Art or Guggenheim people are walking around in groups, talking, laughing and exchanging about the exhibitions.  There is a vibrant buzz all over the places. At the brand new Met Breuer which is an affiliate of the Metropolitan Museum, bunches of people are heading for the cosy café in order to enjoy a coffee, discuss the latest exhibition or simply work at their laptops or mobiles. Cafés are located on roof tops offering fantastic views such as at the MoMA, café furniture is thoroughly chosen or designed by artists or designers such as at the New Museum. It seems like US museums have shifted their role from cultural institutions to social places – and it is real fun!

4. The Commercial Factor

Extravagant merchandising, unique gifts, sale corners, multiple store locations all over the city and cooperations with huge players – commerce plays a vital role within the museum business of US museums. Visitors cannot miss the museum shop due to distinctive signage and clever location. High-class design items such as the Eames’ Lounge Chair for 5.000 bucks, classical tourists’ gifts such as magnets and postcards as well as useful kitchen items or tasteful jewelry invite museum visitors and non-visitors to a shopping tour. MoMA holds an extra design store apart from the museum shop, the Met has an affiliate on Rockefeller plaza and MoMA started a unique cooperation with the Japanese clothing company Uniqlo offering an extensive T-shirt collection with art motives. You can buy a T-shirt with art works by Mondrian, Warhol, Basquiat and many more for $15 each. This strongly reminds me of the Rijks Museum which offers pictures of hundreds of thousands art works free of any copyright even for commercial usage. The Uniqlo cooperation brings art into people’s lives – directly, colorful and simply beautiful.

To sum up, I think there are quite a few aspects German museums can learn from their US neighbors: museums can offer valuable and scientific insights and be fun at the same time. Art being immersive and becoming part of our everyday lives is not necessarily banal but enriches our lives and opens up museums to new target groups.

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