Magazine article The Spectator

Had a Rough Night?

Magazine article The Spectator

Had a Rough Night?

Article excerpt

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. …

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