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Is There a Future for Old-Fashioned Museums?
If the Spirit of St. Louis Can Come Alive on Your Desktop, You Might Not Want to Trek to the Mall

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

They're building not one Newseum, but two.

One is made of glass and steel, and is under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a stunning view of the Capitol.

The other is made of pixels and bandwidth, and is under construction on a three-dimensional private island on the Web.

This parallel reality looks like an animated movie, except you get to direct your character yourself. He walks wherever you choose, looks at whatever you want to see and fiddles with objects any way you fancy.

In a test run, your character is a muscular young man wearing a green T-shirt and bluejeans. You and he gaze at front pages of the Boston Globe and the American Press of Lake Charles, La. You make him amble past a headline from the day Ronald Reagan died, then play with some fancy interactive devices that allow you, through him, to control what the Newseum shows.

Then, at your command, he does the most astonishing thing. He stretches his arms and flies. Your alter ego soars out of the place like a raptor, and you're with him all the way, pausing to gaze down at the 74-foot-tall Tennessee marble wall with its chiseled First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . ."

This novel way to experience a museum is still a hush-hush project. It is a simulacrum of the physical Newseum being erected in "Second Life" -- that pioneering testbed of the "metaverse," as the three-dimensional portion of the Web is known.

It raises questions about the very future of museums. Indeed, it can make one ponder whether all those granite and limestone mausoleums that litter Washington have a future at all.

In the age of the networked computer, museums are being fundamentally challenged in the same ways that other bastions of education and entertainment -- from libraries to the music industry -- are being rocked to their cores.

The arguments swirl. Are museums in the bone-and-pigment business, reliquaries of the past? Are they in the theater business, telling stories through sensational lighting, presentations like stage sets and costumed interpretive actors? Are museums in the experience business, forced to reach for ever fancier gizmos and blockbusters to compete with the sports world and Disney for family time and money?

No one has a clue if the Newseum's Second Life experiment will ever go public. "You learn by doing," says Paul Sparrow, the Newseum's vice president for broadcasting and programs. "Like with our first Web site in the '90s."

But the Newseum is already at the cutting edge of museum change. It is, for example, an "idea" museum, like the Holocaust Museum, in that it has a message to deliver. It is entirely wrapped up in issues of "truth" and "reality." It's highly dramatic and emotion-laden. And -- like the industries it honors -- a lot of what it shows became entirely digital a long time ago.

Showing Up Costs Money

Museums are relatively modern inventions.

The human urge to collect magical, beautiful, exotic or merely curious objects goes back to the Stone Age, burial sites show. For most of history, however, these collections were the private preserves of the rich, powerful or learned. It wasn't until the start of the industrial age that the British Museum became the first created "for the general use and benefit of the public." Of the approximately 17,500 museums in the United States, more than 70 percent opened after 1950.

They are now entering another period of upheaval. The information age has ushered in an "economy of presence," says William J. Mitchell, former dean of architecture and planning at MIT, who has written three books on how the digital age is transforming everyday life and the built environment.

Showing up physically "consumes resources and costs money," he writes. "It costs us time and effort to get to places to meet people, conduct transactions and see performances."

We've welcomed the electronic alternatives. In eras past, for example, the only way to experience theater and music was live. Performers and audiences had to arrive at the same place at precisely the same time. Special buildings were created for such rendezvous. Now, however, the choices are endless -- broadcast, DVD, downloads, podcasts.

Print technology made bookstores and libraries ubiquitous. Now that the Internet's Amazon delivers, however, half of all U.S. independent bookstores have disappeared and the booksellers that thrive have morphed. They are now centered on their cafes, couches and cappuccino machines. They strive to become not simply warehouses but experience places.

This rapid transformation has had widespread effects.

While the markets for virtual experience grow exponentially, they also push extreme devotees in the opposite direction -- toward the authentic.

On any given weekend, tens of millions watch sports electronically from their couches. Yet 91,665 people pack FedEx Field because the communal experience is so intense.

The vast choices available on the Web punish places that try to be all things to all people. Wegmans and Whole Foods -- which present themselves as places for the cognoscenti to linger and savor the experience -- can take market share from places that try to appeal to the broad middle, such as Safeway and Giant.

The lesson for museums is that nimble upstarts can win big. Large, long-existing players complacent in their old formulas can die.

Truth and Museums

It's sometimes hard to know where museums are going for the murk surrounding where they've been.

"It's really interesting that we've never been able to write the definition of a museum and say here's who's in and here's who's out," says Elizabeth E. Merritt, director of museum advancement and excellence for the American Association of Museums, the trade's umbrella group.

To be a museum, for example, do you have to have artifacts? Well then, what about planetariums? The AAM counts them in.

If museums are about interpreting the past, is the Manassas Battlefield a museum?

"Historic sites are also museums. It's really slippery," Merritt says. "To some extent it's the primacy of the experience. So maybe the battlefield doesn't have an object. But in some ways the land itself is the object. You could exactly re-create Manassas in Texas or California. . . . Heck, you could even make it more like it was back then than the real one is today. But it wouldn't be the same. Because people want to stand there and know that that is the ground where the battle was fought and where people died. It's a deeply human thing."

If it's about connecting to the past, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a museum?

"I would say yes," Merritt says. "Looking at the way people interact with it, to me it is very much the way people interact with a museum. It's an emotional give and take. I've seen people cry in museums."

So museums do not need to have artifacts, and they do not even need to have buildings. Is emotional response the key thing?

"It's hard to pin down," Merritt says. "But it is something about reality. Even if you're in a science museum, where all they have is machinery, what they're telling you about is gravity, heat, Newton's laws of motion. Those are real. They're just trying to find indirect ways for you to see them."

What about the Bible-inspired Creation Museum in Kentucky?

"They are using exhibits and artifacts to try and explore their worldview and educate people in things they believe are important," Merritt says.

So it's important for a museum to be a place that attempts to portray a vision of "the truth"?

"Absolutely," Merritt says. "Now, different museums might come to different conclusions about what the truth is. You're not going to get people at the Creation Museum telling you the same story about Earth as the American Museum of Natural History. But they are deeply, intellectually committed to the fact that they're right."

What happens when you get two museums on the same Mall in Washington, both run by the Smithsonian, that produce wildly different versions of the truth -- like Natural History's version of what Indians were about, and that of the Museum of the American Indian? The latter never once mentions people traversing a land bridge across the Bering Strait. It prefers to tell the story of the Tohono O'odham of Arizona, who believe two creators, Earth Medicine Man and I'itoi, produced the world . . . and that the Tohono O'odham have been here since the start of time.

"People look to different points of validation for what constitutes the truth," says Merritt.

'Entertainment Over Learning'

"There is only a limited amount of discretionary time that people have for recreation, and we're competing for that," says Ford W. Bell, the new president and chief executive officer of the AAM.

This competition creates wildly veering markets, made no easier to fathom by museums' fuzzy data.

The Air and Space Museum, for example, seems to be crashing.

If you believe the official numbers, attendance soared to 14.4 million in 1984, two years before the Challenger disintegrated, hovered around 9 million from 1997 to 2003, and skimmed the weeds in 2004 with an all-time low of 4.9 million. It barely cleared 5 million in 2006. Even attendance at the museum's four-year-old Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles is in decline.

The problem is, no one knows if these numbers -- or most others in the museum world -- are to be believed.

"One would think museums can and do count who comes through the door," an AAM report says. But no. "Some museums include attendance at off-site programs. Some count those who attend fairs and festivals held on the grounds; others do not. Some museums do not even have 'doors' (think interpreted grounds with no fences or gates)." The list goes on.

The AAM recently estimated national museum attendance with a huge range from 600 million to 2.4 billion.

For what it's worth, the same study states that of all the different kinds of museums, the most visited are zoos. Science and technology museums are No. 2, arboretums/botanical gardens No. 3. Only when you get to No. 5 do you find art museums -- behind children's museums. History museums are No. 11.

Also, Washington institutions seem to be statistically extreme. Of museums surveyed in 2004 by the AAM, typical annual attendance was 34,000. That's less than the Anacostia Community Museum's. It's a mere solid weekend for the National Museum of Natural History.

While many museums report stable attendance, certain kinds already seem to be tanking. Historical reenactment places such as Colonial Williamsburg and Massachusetts's Sturbridge Village are hurting, Merritt says, as well as a plethora of minor-league historic homes around the country.

Some museum leaders quietly wonder whether the drive to make museums ever bigger and glitzier is a symptom of impending doom -- a misguided effort to compete with crass tourist attractions.

"There's a challenge ahead for a lot of places that have expanded their physical plants," says Maxwell L. Anderson, CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He foresees "huge energy costs and security costs, without even mentioning the expense of programming." If you have "a large tourist market, a big endowment and a great permanent collection, build away. If you're missing one or two -- or three -- it's wishful thinking."

The problem, Anderson says, is that museums can't even agree on what constitutes progress. In 2004, Anderson asked if art museum leaders had a clue. His influential broadside, "Metrics of Success in Art Museums," came out of his work at the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton.

"The root of the problem is that there is no longer an agreed-upon method of measuring achievement," he wrote. "Half a century ago, art museums were largely measured by a yardstick comparable to that applied to libraries of the time: the size and importance of their collections." But today, he argued, art museums increasingly "are to their detriment places that privilege entertainment over learning."

This year, in the journal Curator, he argued, "The message has been conspicuously entrepreneurial: we can be compared with theme parks, so we matter."

He calls for measures of success that focus on the visitor's experience of the "resonance and wonder" of artworks -- "an intangible sense of elation -- a feeling that a weight was lifted."

In other words: the magic.

Wired in the Brain

In 2004, curators of the Louvre created a white-laser virtual model of the Mona Lisa. It captured details at a resolution of 10 microns -- a 10th of the thickness of a human hair -- in three dimensions, brush strokes and all.

This marvel came courtesy of the unexpected vistas opened by the half-century-long exponential increase in computing power that continues unabated. It is only a matter of time before our computers display the entire content of every museum on Earth -- plus everything in their warehouses -- with the kind of wraparound accuracy far beyond the capabilities of photography, that 200-year-old technology.

Under these circumstances, will there ever again be reason to pack yourself into an 800-passenger jet to Paris and be jostled by hundreds of Japanese tourists while viewing the bulletproof shrine that contains "La Gioconda"?

"I've been there to see the 'Mona Lisa,' " says AAM head Bell, "and there were a lot of Japanese tourists and it was hotter than the hinges of hell, and they were all taking flash pictures even though the sign said no flash pictures. But somehow, despite that, I stood there, in the eighth or 10th row of people, and thought, 'I'm looking at the very thing that Leonardo himself painted.' It stimulates something inside you."

Our brains may indeed be wired to respond emotionally to what can be found in some museums, says Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California and the author of "The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness."

"It is an emotional response that is related to the fundamental makeup of primates -- which has to do with curiosity, exploration and a sense of discovery. It produces reward when something is found," he says. "That is why we have eyes the way we do -- to scan the horizon, looking for potential food, danger. . . . If you find something that's good, you are rewarded for it, automatically, internally, with an emotion that produces pleasure. That's why you keep doing it.

"So you turn a corner in a museum, and encounter something you've heard about or looked for -- or have never heard about, but is very beautiful. That element of surprise is part of the trigger.

"It would be stupid not to use every means of recording we have," Damasio says, referring both to the past of his beloved jazz and classical music and the future of museum image capture. "But that doesn't mean to say it's a substitute for the firsthand experience. Just different."

If this is true, there may be reasons for guarded optimism about the future of some museums -- especially the ones that produce an extraordinary experience, ones that fire a hormonal cascade like none other, a shiver, a euphoria, a buzz.

The ones that survive may be the ones that deliver presences from other worlds and self-satisfactions, like all good temples. They would be the ones that prove that Duchamp was right when he said the painter makes only half his picture, that the viewer completes it. That if you get turned on by a Titian nude or grossed out by a Goya atrocity, or experience beauty, you've had a visitation that even the godless sense.

And maybe in the age of the networked computer, some museums will thrive because, as Paul Saffo, the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says, "I think we're just big dumb crazy squirrels that like to collect [stuff].

"There's three things that motivate us, that scratch the itch: the desire to tell stories, the desire to be useful and the desire to collect [stuff]. I challenge you to find anything a human does that doesn't scratch one of those itches."

A good museum, of course, hits the trifecta. It does all three.

Staff writers Paul Richard, Philip Kennicott, Blake Gopnik and Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.

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