Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

What Museums And Buskers Share In Common

3rd March 2015

I was going to write on the Marco Polo-ish subject of Story but have been side-tracked by Money, and in particular by the question:  What is it that museums, buskers and digital companies share in common?  Answer:  all of them, whether by choice, necessity or Act of Parliament, are distributing large amounts of their content for free.

It’s a hard way to make a living and it makes me wonder if there is anything that museums can learn from digital companies about how to survive in this new, free world?  Which is why it is that I am in our local Waterstones one morning, leafing through the books in the Business section until I come across a book called ‘The Curve’ by Nicholas Lovell.

It’s not the only book that lays out the new rules for survival but it is a particularly clear exposition of the problem and the possible solutions, which (with apologies for the marketing-speak) goes like this – that in a world where huge amounts are given away for free across the web, businesses will survive by moving their audiences along the demand-curve, from spend nothing to spend a little to spend a lot, that the long battle to fight free content wlll prove pointless and that a cleverer response is to acknowledge that there will always be customers who stick to the free stuff, others who voluntarily pay something (out of guilt or pleasure) and a proportion who are real fans and who will pay a lot in return for feeling special and a part of what we do.

I am just about to put the book back on the shelf (thinking, How can this be?) when I remember the busker outside in the street.  Do you give money to buskers?  I do, even though I don’t have to – their content is free – and even though they have never yet changed my life forever. (Because that’s not what they do.)  I give money when they are good and when they give me a momentary buzz – which I reckon is worth a small transaction.

So museums are not stupid and the last three big ones I have been into have all asked me if I want to become a Member (their equivalent of moving me along the demand-curve).  But small museums, in my experience, don’t make the same proposition – even though what they have to offer feels in some ways more special and more unusual than the big museums.

Meanwhile the idea that museums – complex organisations with many employees – will be dependent for their income on charming, enlightening and entertaining their audiences, is mildly terrifying – although you might say that cinemas, theatres and all the rest have been doing this forever.

And there’s another point.  It seems that the psychology of how we all pay for something, anything, is getting more complicated. When historians come to write the history of the 20th century they will note the process by which companies have tried to standardise payment and make it feel like second nature, a law of physics, to hand over money in return for a product sold at a fixed price.

But it wasn’t always like this – and still isn’t in large parts of the world. Back in 15th century Venice (don’t ask me how I know this) you would have haggled in a bookshop for the cost of a book. Now though there are some people who suggest that the process of payment has become so boring (in – for instance – the big supermarkets) that this is one reason why we are abandoning them in droves in favour of smaller shops and markets, where the transaction feels more entertaining.  And it is true that it is peculiarly difficult to hand over money to someone who looks bored at the idea of receiving it.

And so it may be that if museums ever go back to charging, they won’t find the process easy or straightforward anyway.  Our audiences will expect a lot for their money, and – with the old standardised process of buying and selling going forever – we will, like buskers, have to put on a good show.

And so back to the office, pausing to buy a strong coffee on the way, to listen to the busker – and feeling quite weary.

(Image is from the Dreamstime website.  Much recommended.)