Had a rough night?
Josie Appleton deplores the use of advertising gimmicks to promote museums and galleries
It took me a few seconds to realise that the two adverts on Holborn Tube station were for museums. ‘Had a rough night?’ asked the first one. ‘But before we continue we need to run a check on you. Are we talking about a Cholmondeley Ladies hangover, or a Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants hangover?’ The product being touted was Tate Britain’s ‘I’m Hungover Collection’ — a recommended tour of eight paintings for the morning after, including works on the themes of guilt, double vision, ‘dodgy fried food’, and, finally, ‘salvation’. The other advert bore two chiselled Greek discusthrowers, and asked, ‘Ever fancied abs that look like they’re carved out of stone? Try some training tips from ancient Greece, the culture which gave us the original six-pack.’ This was for the British Museum’s antiquities collection (training advice included ‘Get naked’, ‘Cross-train’, and ‘Keep going’).
The ads were part of larger campaigns to market the museums’ permanent collections. Tate Britain’s other tours include the ‘Happily depressed collection’, ‘First date collection’, ‘I have a big meeting collection’, ‘Calming collection’ and ‘I’ve just split up collection’. Meanwhile, the BM also ran ads inviting people to build ‘selfbelief’ by ‘staring into the eyes of some fearsome shield-biting Vikings’, and to find a name for their baby (Idia and Yellow Calf were two suggestions) — and it plans future campaigns around yoga, beauty tips, leadership skills, self-confidence and getting famous. Brian Millar from Brand Tacticians, the company that advised the BM, gushed, ‘There are so many ways you can find inspiration from spending an hour in the BM — it is like a giant self-help guide!’ The British Museum: a giant self-help guide? Sir Hans Sloane — the museum’s founding collector, who aimed to build an ‘encyclopaedia of the world’ — would be turning in his grave. Museums say that they have no choice but to go down this road. Damian Whitmore, the V&A’s director of public affairs, tells me that ‘every museum is competing with the TV or the internet. Everybody has to communicate differently now — you have to grab attention.’ Cultural leaders claim that there is now a ‘24-hour media culture’, that the public is ‘more demanding’, and that institutions have to become more ‘relevant’. But these are really just excuses. Cultural institutions are using the language of marketing and self-help gurus because they no longer believe in their own language. They don’t believe that they can make Viking or Greek statues come alive for today, so instead they latch on to whatever is flying around in popular culture. They draft in admen to press the public’s buttons because they don’t know how to reach that public through their work.
It was in the 1980s that museums started using the language of marketing, selling themselves as homes from home where visitors could hang out. ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’, went the V&A’s trailblazing ad. The paintings were increasingly presented as decoration, not really the point of what became known as ‘the museum experience’. As Christian Mikunda argued in Brand Lands, Hot Spots and Cool Spaces, the Guggenheim model was key: ‘Although not an ardent admirer of modern painting, someone might nevertheless become a regular patron of the museum, paying the admission fee, making a few purchases and eating or drinking something.’ Museum visiting was promoted as an ‘event’, and museums experimented with new promotion methods: Tate teamed up with Pret a Manger to produce a ‘Cezannewich’ to run alongside one special exhibition.
What was promotion then has become practice now. The V&A’s ‘ace caff’ ad was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and prompted a furious reaction from museum staff. Today the museum really has become an entertainment space, holding carnivals, Friday-night DJ sessions and knitting circles. Relevance is becoming a golden rule for exhibitions: nothing too difficult, nothing too distant from the everyday.
The promotion of museum-going as an ‘event’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Museums have been complicit in the erosion of the museum-going public. Although visitor figures are healthy, people increasingly go to museums as a special occasion rather than as a regular habit. While special exhibitions are packed out, permanent collections often remain largely empty aside from tourists. The National Gallery’s Titians and Tate Britain’s Turners hang unobserved for much of the time; it’s only when repackaged as a ‘Titian exhibition’ or ‘Turner exhibition’ that the crowds come. Those who regularly visit museums such as Tate Modern increasingly do so in an offhand way, to hang out or because they happened to be passing.
There is now a separation between the museum’s curatorial work and the communication of that work to a wider audience. The marketing department represents the public at the museum board table, claiming to hold the key to what the ‘audience really wants’. Addressing the public is not seen as a natural extension of museums’ intellectual and collecting activity, but is rather a specialist skill that can be carried out only by flashy PR types. Museums are building focus groups to try to get in touch. Tate Britain apparently spent eight months working with youth groups to fine-tune its latest ad series, as well as going to a ‘young hip agency full of young hip people’ to ‘test the idea’. These lifestyle ads are self-consciously addressing particular visitor groups. The BM says that its campaign was aimed at ‘hedonistic dilettantes’, and established a careful ‘balance between factual precision and tone of voice’.
Museums can only ever be second-rate entertainment centres: why look at the pecs on old Greek statues when you could look at Heat magazine instead? What museums have to offer is not a mirror to everyday experience but a window to other worlds. As a better BM ad puts it, ‘Travel the world. Visit the British Museum.’ From many millennia-old models of human figures to the first scratched examples of writing, from the wonders of the Parthenon to stark African masks to Michelangelo drawings, the whole of history is here, humankind in all its variety.
Cultural institutions need to find modern and enticing ways of promoting their work, without reducing themselves to ‘giant self-help guides’. After all, permanent collections shouldn’t be that hard to sell — they are free, and you can come back again and again, which means that art can grow on you and become part of your life. Advertising is key for museums they need to get their message out and tell people what’s there. But advertising can be used to win an audience, rather than expecting it prepackaged and just requiring certain buttons to be pushed. Talking to the public could be an inspiring challenge for cultural institutions; it doesn’t have to mean talking in baby language.