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Aspiration. Photo by Francesca Palazzi

by • 7 Mar, 2013 • Thoughts about museumsComments (6)76

Museums, the aspirational 14% and brand identity

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.

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.

Peter the Great in the Hermitage Romeo and Juliet National Ballet
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.

LakenhalRobinStam

 

Header photo by Francesca Palazzi on Flickr.

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  • http://twitter.com/wordhappynz Eleanor Ross

    I like your line of argument. I think the real challenge, though, is being glamorous (appealing to the aspirational) at the same time as being ordinary (and thus non-threatening to ‘the masses’). I’d like to think that selling to the masses and selling dreams (to the aspirational and the masses!) might be the goal.

  • Pingback: Static Made | Gods of the 14%

  • Ed Rodley

    I loved the post, Jasper. It’s a fascinating mix of stuff; provocative and a little eclectic.  I especially loved the authors’ pieces on museums. The Aspirational 14% is a new concept to me, and I’m still wrestling with it a bit.  For now, here are three reactions to three parts of your post.

    “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.”

    I totally agree. There is an echo chamber sometimes, where we talk to each other and “the visitors” rarely appear.  I would point out though that despite the quote above, you haven’t actually gotten to the everyday people. You’ve gotten to the people who want to sell them things. They often have deep insights, but I’m immediately on guard when it comes to uncritically accepting their findings. It may be non-profit snobbery on my part, but I feel they need extra testing before I’ll add them to my bag of thinking tools. The best way to know bout the museum-going masses is to talk to them.

    “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…”

    I think you’re referring specifically about art museums here. My museum is rarely peaceful, except very early in the morning.

    “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.”

    I’d like to get to the point where museums aren’t selling dreams as much as giving them away. 

    Keep it up!

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com/ Jasper Visser

    > The best way to know bout the museum-going masses is to talk to them.

    I totally agree. I’m definitely not saying this highly-biased secondary research says anything about the masses. One thing I’d like to add: don’t just talk to the museum-going masses, also talk to those not going!

    > I’d like to get to the point where museums aren’t selling dreams as much as giving them away.

    Of course I mean selling figuratively.

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/a11yInMuseums AccessibleMuseums

    What a lovely post Jasper. It took me right back to my childhood and what museums and art galleries meant to me (in India) – spaces for endless discoveries and going slack-jawed at the grand things on display. We could never touch them of course, which only made them more mystical and appealing. I guess the best part about the way a child navigates the objects is to take in the whole of it, without being distracted by the signage, the context, its political lineage or its provenance, whether there is audio-visuals accompanying it and what not. Weren’t we just happy to be able to experience a world that was not accessible in our schools, playgrounds and television sets?

    Today, as someone who works for disability rights and digital inclusion for persons with disabilities, and also as someone who has an academic background in history and museums, my approach to culture, and institutions that represent it, has taken a 360 degree turn. It has been to our detriment when we only focus on projecting a museum as a site of imagination and fantasy, where the aspirational can visit and internalize their dreams. It means that we exclude vast swathes of people who could potentially become part of the aspirational crowd, but are never catered to.

    Art, craft and products of culture (textile, jewellery, wood work, etc) began in the public realm, with the 90% ideating it, creating it, selling and redistributing it. But in classifying them as high art and transforming their provenance into museum / institutionalized settings, we have ended up distancing the very people for whom these objects would have been relevant. More people can then make an informed choice about the places they can visit to shape their aspirations and dreams.

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com/ Jasper Visser

    Thanks for this worderful story, ‘AccessibleMuseums’ :-)