Are museums still relevant?

CNN  — 

This interview dates from 2013. Ford W. Bell was president of the American Alliance of Museums from 2007 to 2015.

Ford W. Bell answers our questions about the roles of museums and their relevance as a destination today.

CNN: What roles should museums today fulfill?

Bell: At their core, museums are educational institutions, as essential to our communities as schools, libraries and utilities.

Museums invest more than $2 billion in education programs each year, serving “pre-K-through-life,” as we like to say.

Museums in this country welcome some 90 million schoolchildren each year, and these students are not on the field trip as you and I understand them. Today, these field trips are extensions of the classroom.

Museums have adapted to the strictures of No Child Left Behind, and in fact in some states museums are taking the lead in writing the state standards for education.

All told, American museums provide 18 million instructional hours to K-12 students in America, and are invaluable to homeschooled children.

Museums are also economic engines for communities large and small. One statistic I never tire of citing has been cited by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

They say that, for every $1 a municipality invests in cultural organizations, including museums, $7 are returned to the public coffers. That’s a return that would make Warren Buffett swoon.

Museums are also a big part of the cultural tourism industry in this country – a $192 billion industry.

And studies show that cultural tourists spend more and stay longer than other tourists. Three exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last fall and spring generated more than $700 million in economic activity for the city. That’s astounding.

But today museums are doing much, much more.

Museums are committed to public service, and many museums are filling the social service gaps created by the recent economic downturn.

Museums of various types are providing programs to children on the autism spectrum, to Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, to veterans with traumatic injuries.

Museums also offer English as a Second Language courses for new arrivals, free computer training to those needing to upgrade their job skills, and some truly visionary museums connect with underserved communities, working with families caught up in the juvenile justice system, and providing parenting classes to young mothers.

Museums view this as keeping with their shared mantra of public service.

CNN: How best do you think museums should achieve those aims?

Bell: Museums need to become part of the social fabric of the community.

They need to become community assets, and most are doing so, through innovative efforts like those described above.

CNN: What is the risk that museums today are simply acting as “collectors of stuff” – and how can it be avoided?

Bell: Obviously, museums are much more than mere collectors. For instance, many museums are leading research institutions.

And those with living collections zoos, aquariums, gardens are leading the way in conservation efforts and conservation research.

But do not underestimate the value of collecting things.

Museums hold more than 1 billion objects, and together these constitute our shared heritages cultural, historic, scientific, natural.

As the keepers, protectors, interpreters and exhibitors of these heritages, museums play an essential role.

In recent years, museums are playing perhaps an even more essential role, but one that is less tangible. In an increasingly virtual world, museums are among the last bastions of authenticity.

All of us – particularly the young – are awash in all things virtual. But studies show that all of us – again, especially the young – crave the authentic. That is priceless.

CNN: Do you think there is a conservatism within American museums that stops them extending their roles into new areas?

Bell: As I’ve mentioned, I think museums are already extending their roles. The only element of conservatism comes from financial prudence.

Since the Great Recession, our studies show that fully two-thirds of museums have reported financial stress.

Many have been forced to cut staff, hours and programs. At the height of the downturn, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty – arguably the two richest museums in the country – cut their staffs.

Further, museums stepping into the social service gap comes at a time when government support for museums is declining, from all levels of government.

CNN: How many people are visiting museums these days and how has that changed over the last few years?

Bell: Our studies over the last four years show museum attendance has been increasing. This is common when times get tough.

When times are difficult, people return to their museums. For instance, we saw a big spike in attendance after 9/11. People want to reconnect with what they value.

The Alliance and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services estimate that there are 850 million annual museum visits in the U.S. – that’s more than the attendance at all major league sporting events combined.

The Smithsonian alone attracts more than 30 million visitors annually.

This is a question of value. Not only are museums an educational, enlightening experience, but they are affordable.

The median price of admission to a U.S. museum is just $7; compare that to a baseball game or theme park ticket. And 37 percent of U.S. museums are free, while 92% have free days.

CNN: Which are the most popular or successful museums in America, and what do they do that allows them to succeed?

Bell: Science centers and children’s museums are immensely popular, and organizations like the San Diego Zoo and the National Aquarium in Baltimore really connect with visitors.

But many small to mid-size museums also succeed in forging those community bonds that make their communities no more likely to entertain the museum going away as they would doing away with their schools.