20 May

Donald Draper on the Way of Museums

“You are the product. You feel something.” Mad Men

The television show Mad Men celebrates the way that advertising men transformed brands like Hershey and Jaguar from things you buy into personas with which you identify.  In the show, Don Draper, a complicated anti-hero, was shown developing poetic narratives that made people connect with products.  With the power of words and images, Draper transformed things into experiences.

Draper’s powers in transfiguration seemed rooted in his innate understanding of culture and human nature.  While womanizing and hard-drinking, at his core, Draper seemed intensely empathic, employing this power for commercial ends.  In actor Jon Hamm’s read of the finale, Draper understands his core self in a moment of meditation.  Hamm’s reading is based on a sequence where Draper is seen smiling amid a cliff full of hippies before a cut to an iconic Coke ad about love and peace.  Rather than seeing Don as an opportunist, Hamm suggests that Draper realizes what he is—someone good at connecting people to ideas.

Museums might take a few notes from these admen.  Art museums do not make art; they make art available. Natural history museums might engage in excavations, but they didn’t fossilize the dinosaurs. Instead, museums are trying to get people to choose to buy what they are selling—cultural heritage.

But, people are buying our product less regularly. Museum attendance continues to drop. It might be because museums are selling the wrong thing.  Many museums are housed in buildings that were new and flashy. Building projects allowed many institutions to announce record attendance.  Now, these buildings are last season’s product.  Museum buildings are structures, elaborate housing for a collection.  Few buildings in our nation go beyond brick and mortar in the public consciousness. Even spaces that do, say the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are often imbued with meaning outside of the work of the museum itself.

The analogy of a movie theater might be helpful.  Movie theaters are places to go for entertainment.  Like museums, movie theaters are seeing numbers go down.  Like many museums, movie theaters house a watched form of entertainment. But, few, if any, movie theaters operate as 501-C3s.  They need to turn a profit to keep the doors open, and they have little hope of garnering donations to buoy their bottom line.  With such stakes, there is little time for academic concerns about whether they should sell the idea of movie theaters or the actual movie in the theaters.  They sell the movie, or they will have no theater to show the movie in.  Movies are the thing that make people go to movie theaters.

So, what should museums sell to get people go to museums?  If you follow my analogy to its conclusion, the answer would be collections.  Is that what the adman would say?  I think Don Draper would say that museums need to package themselves in ways that resonate.  In the Mad Men universe, Draper took the zeitgeist of his time, and with a Californian clarity, thought about what would make people feel a connection to the brand.  In that famous feel good ad, the Coca Cola brand positioned itself as a convener of people.

What will make people connect to museums?  What is that pitch that will help people feel that museums are as essential to their lives as a cold coke? After all, if anyone can teach a thing or two about homes,  honey bees, and turtle doves, certainly museums are well placed to educate the future in perfect harmony.

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