“Good things,” said that wise old sage Homer Simpson, “don’t end in -eum. They end in -mania or -teria.”
Yes, sadly, “museum” is an unpopular word. Which is why the magnificent Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake is changing its name (or its “identity,” as marketing jargon would have it) to the Adirondack Experience.
Um, OK. Hey look, who’s to say; maybe it will catch on. All this time that people have been dodging museums as if they were passing out leprosy at the door could have been avoided if we’d just rolled with a friendlier, more active-sounding sobriquet. Perhaps we will soon be able to visit the British Experience or the Experience of Fine Art.
But they’re still museums. So it will be interesting to see if the new word brings the museums up, or if museums drag the word down: “Aw mom, do we have to go to another boring experience?”
I fear it would be the latter because, except on Election Day, people are trickier to fool than you think. You can change the name of a Dentist Office to a Laughing Gas Centre and technically you would be correct — but people will know it’s still a dentist.
In the age of analytics everything is about numbers, and museum officials point to poll numbers that indicate 86 percent of millennials say experiences are more important than possessions. Maybe. But it would probably depend on the possession and depend on the experience. Most of the millennials probably responded to the poll on their iPhones, which you can have when you pry them from their cold dead hands.
Having been a member of some nonprofit institutes, I understand the amount of blood, sweat and tears that goes into settling on an identity, often with poor result. More than once I have seen an institute’s primary mission placed on the back burner literally for weeks while the board members squabbled over a new logo.
And as someone who love-love-loves museums, I can’t help but feel a bit defensive. Yes, when I see the Museum shingle hanging out, I’m slamming on the brakes when everyone else is stepping on the gas. I want a museum, dammit; if I want an experience I’ll go to North Philadelphia.
And yet I do reluctantly understand the Adirondack Mus, er, Experience’s point. If there is blame to assign for the rebranding, I would suggest that it rests less with AE than it does with too many museums that have allowed themselves to become static, mildewy places, with a wrinkled dowager behind a desk staring hawkishly at the collection box. No wonder museums give kids a serious case of the creeps, and have adults checking their watch two minutes in. What, you don’t want to watch another round of the 20-minute movie on the Massachusetts cod industry, which has been playing on a continuous loop since 1953?
Sure, there are going to be some small, unchanging museums-of-record that tell the story of a community and are designed as an historic informational kiosk for the stray tourist who will never pass that way again. And they are fine for what they are.
In this sense it’s at least understandable that the Adirondack Experience wants to be rid of the guilt by association that comes from being branded a museum.
No doubt, a lot of museums have gotten the message, and many have become quite good. The museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park comes to mind. And, I would argue, the Adirondack museum (I can still call it that if I use lower case, right?) sets the standard. It is big and bright, with stories and flowers galore. It takes you back, it moves you forward, it makes you wonder and it makes you think. On many trips there I have heard several people going in grumbling about the admittedly high cost of admission. But I have never heard anyone coming out saying they didn’t get their money’s worth.
A good museum should be bold and aggressive, not shy and retreating. History is anything but dull, and for those of us who love it, it should be our job to spread the word in the most entertaining way possible. Because it’s not our history that has failed us, it is the communication of that history. Maybe good things don’t end in -eum, but good things certainly do begin with Muse. And to my thinking, any museum that gets that point can call itself anything it wants.