Occasionally, it’s good to take a step back from all the insiders’ discussions about the future of museum and their role in society and look at what ordinary people have to say about that. I feel at times there’s a disconnect between the museum discourse and my everyday experience with ordinary people about what they want from museums.
Take for instance the ordinary people who write the great series ‘Authors on museums’ in my favourite magazine Intelligent Life. Almost every one of these authors reflects in their essay on the intrinsic value of the collection of the museum. Plus, most of them see the museum they describe as a place to escape to (Sanctum in the City). It is a place that defines them as individuals and a place full of memories of family and friendship, love and life (Palais of the Dolls). It is a place for private memories (The Odessaphiles).
Through the eyes of the authors, museums are a dream world. A museum is not reality. A museum is a place that appeals to the imagination with (self)discovery, beautiful collections, peace and quite…
The aspirational 14%
Given, these authors aren’t as ordinary people as John Doe is ordinary people. Nevertheless, they represent and write for an audience that is very much a museum audience. Intelligent Life is written for a group of society I’ve recently read being referred to as ‘the aspirational 14%’. In context, the 14% of people aspiring to one day own a Patek Philippe (as opposed to the 1% that actually will). These are the people that look up, hope, dream. In the words of Oscar Wilde, those in the gutter looking at the stars.
The size and makeup of the aspirational 14% differs per country. What they have in common however, I believe, is that they are a much better target demographic than the ubiquitous “everybody”. Especially, as aspiration is not necessarily bound to other demographics. An elderly white male doesn’t have to be more aspirational than a young immigrant girl. In fact, when I look around me in the Netherlands, the opposite might be more true.
With a little twist of focus museums can easily appeal to the aspirational 14%. The luxury of the collections, the educational value of the expositions, the glamour of culture and art, the rich network of other visitors.
Contrasting two contemporary advertisements in Amsterdam. Left: The poster for the new Peter the Great exhibition in the Hermitage at best triggers the intellect of the chosen few. Right: The poster of the National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet clearly aims at other emotions.
And brand identity
Aspiration is a convincing promise. Magazines such as Intelligent Life and most department stores understand this: they try to appeal to the people that aspire to know more, to travel more, to wear nicer clothes. This is not you, but we promise this could be you.
Compare the two posters above. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Peter the Great lived in Amsterdam and his presence can still be felt in street names, buildings, etc. The tsar had many highly-desirable qualities that you can strive for yourself, and he did do things that appeal to the imagination. Knowing the Hermitage, I’m sure even the exhibition is worth going to. Unfortunately, aspiration is lacking from the advertisement.
Romeo and Juliet, by the National Ballet, is a completely different story. Gold! Love! Skill! Dance! Beauty! Cycling through the city you can see people look at the poster and dream. I wish I was the guy/girl! (And I’m sure the disappointment when trying to buy a ticket, 50+ euros! Aspiration doesn’t come cheap…)
Recently one of my favourite designers Robin Stam (full disclosure: I have worked and will work with him) presented the new brand identity for Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden. It looks like a very simple identity, which means it’s probably very good. What I like is that it is modern without trying to be the popular kid. It’s centred on the collection and the glossy logo on the stationary and business cards gives it an almost royal feel. It’s a pleasant change away from the bold sans-serif logos that seem rampant nowadays. One might even call it traditional.
It’s not. It’s aspirational. When I read authors about museums I want to visit the almost mythical places they describe, full of dreams and wonder and objects that tell a story. It’s the closest I can be to being an explorer and inventor (my foremost aspiration). Museums are not about selling to the masses, they’re about selling dreams.
Header photo by Francesca Palazzi on Flickr.