Memo to museums: Don't give away those glass cases

 Tribune photo illustration

Tribune photo illustration (August 23, 2013)

Emily Graslie, the first chief curiosity correspondent at the Field Museum, has been furiously filing YouTube videos about precisely what goes on behind those grand doors. As Steve Johnson reported in the Tribune this week, the 24-year-old known for her work on a YouTube channel called The Brain Scoop — and now apparently relishing her formidable task of popularizing hard-core Field Museum scientists — already has brought her fans productions on the order of "How to Be an Insect" and "Octopus Sex."

Graslie is charged with bringing to life, and to your mobile phone, the old-school research collections and those who work with them at the Field. She is an engaging, smart, on-camera presence and her arrival has been heavily promoted by the Field as evidence of its new commitment to interactive engagement with an audience, especially with young people, who, conventional wisdom has it, crave interactive engagement above all else.

But behold a dangerous paradox. Is not watching Graslie on your computer just one more reason not to go to the Field in person?

Which gives you the most bang for your buck — a click or a trip? Those of us who work in the newspaper business are familiar with this problem.

Think about it for a second. You can go and stare at moth specimens in a glass case (after navigating the parking and paying your fee) or you can see that same glass case at a time and place of your own choosing, replete with Graslie's charmingly quirky narrative. All right, it's a bit less tactile, but there was never much tactile about that glass case, an artifact of the predigital age, in the first place.

That glass case at the Field was designed for a time when you went to the Field (or to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Smithsonian Institution) to see something you could not see elsewhere, much as one went in person to research libraries because that was the one and only way to access the material. Those days are gone, of course. All you have to do is, say, visit the Google Art Project ("travel the world's museums with just a click") and you can see masterpieces from the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki, Finland, or the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. For free. I am looking at them right now; they are reducing the many stresses of my morning.

Ah, you object, seeing a digital replica of a side chair by Frank Lloyd Wright from the Brooklyn Museum is just not the same as pondering that fine piece of furniture from just a few feet away. Perhaps. But it's maybe not as different as you think. You'd set off an alarm if you touched that chair in New York. And, to return to that glass case of moths, specifically created to preserve and thus devoid of smells and the ability to touch, the difference between the live case and the one on your phone really does not hold water. And you get Graslie as a bonus.

In many ways, those display cases at the Field are not so different from the stacks in a library. For a sense of how this world has changed, you need only look at the massive, recently renovated library on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. The students drinking coffee and using the Wi-Fi and plethora of computers on the buzz-filled lower floors work in one of those so-called third spaces, somewhere between study and sociability. The stacks are removed from the action and restricted to high floors. Even more interestingly, they have been illuminated with a pale eerie glow to suggest a relic of the past. Looking up at the stacks is like looking up at the Parthenon.

One of the key differences between libraries and the Field Museum is that the former usually don't charge admission, so it is easier for them to adapt. If the Field removes the exhibits Graslie can explain on her phone to focus on more interactive content, it is in danger of removing the things that people are coming to see. And those paying customers pay a good portion of the bills.

In that regard, the Field is more like a newspaper company, furiously trying to strike the right balance between creating new interactive relationships and not giving away its precious intellectual content. Natural history museums are especially buffeted, I think, by these changes. Science museums came to interactivity much sooner and more easily — by the early 1970s, there were plenty of levers to pull and buttons to press in London's Science Museum, I recall. Art museums have an easier case to make when it comes to arguing that this is no substitute for seeing an exhibit in person: Mark Rothko paintings don't pulse so well on your Samsung tablet. Zoos, like the theater, survive by offering live encounters. But natural history museums (indeed, history museums in general) are in a tougher spot, which perhaps partly explains the Field's financial woes. They are inherently tied to their buildings, which are costly to maintain. They have to keep their paying customers. They can't move to the Web. If they chop up their exhibits and make them available on YouTube for free, they risk making the kind of mistake from which the newspaper business has been slow to recover.

Ergo, interactivity, two-way conversations, "touch it, feel it" and so on are very much buzzwords of museums, just as they are in America's newsrooms. Throughout the nation, opportunities for interaction have been added to our august repositories. And there has been a backlash, as you might predict. A pox on all of this interaction, some say. People should show up, shut up, pay up, be grateful, dial back all of this obsession with presentation and appreciate the glories of the expert work on offer. The content. You hear that case made in newsrooms; I have sometimes made it myself.

I bet a few of the more crusty scientists muttered some version of this argument to each other, when their bosses announced Graslie's arrival, and I bet those bosses sold her arrival to the faculty not on the grounds that she was a threat and a sea change, which she may well be, but by insisting she was a new way to promote their fine work. It is a debate central to the cultural moment in which we live.

"Should museums really follow the path of those experience businesses?" sniffed Judith H. Dobrzynski in a New York Times op-ed piece a few days ago, suggesting that museums now are filled with more toys, slides, sleepovers, videos and trivializing two-way encounters than Chuck E. Cheese or the Las Vegas Strip.

Her answer to that rhetorical question? No, not least on the ground that such actions remove the viability of these institutions as "places of solace and inspiration." She has a point, of course, although the history of the culture business suggests that solace and inspiration, alas, rarely have killed at the ticket booth.

So what to do?

Maybe one painful truth that cities and nonprofit boards have to ponder is that cultural repositories never will attract the numbers they once did. Perchance they have to shrink. Surely, they will have to change.

No doubt Graslie's video will bring publicity to the museum — some small percentage of the people watching her videos will decide to spend the day at the Field. Maybe the Field can monetize Graslie's work by sticking lots of ads on those videos. Time will tell.

But one truth seems incontrovertible. Be it news and opinion or spiders and butterflies, institutions whose core business involves the dissemination of intellectual content can only survive if they don't give away their gems for free.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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