Marie Malaro, a former counsel to the Smithsonian, wrote a very thoughtful piece a few years ago on the dire straits of American museums. As visitor interests shift and meagre funding for museums continues in the long wake of the recession, many of them have adopted the ways of big business – corporate sponsorships, huge board member salaries, and burgeoning ticket prices to defray the costs of the Disney-fication that the crowd seemingly demands.
What is unfortunate about this process, as Malaro points out, is that museums are valuable precisely because they’re not big business. They are the most visible and arguably most universally needed non-profits we have. The people they serve are not only cancer survivors or at-risk youth but every single one of us who benefits from the treasures of knowledge they preserve and present. Running museums as if they were a theme parks might keep them in the black, but it somehow also tarnishes, not the least because the rising costs of entry are excluding many from ever enjoying them at all.
New Orleans’ National World War II Museum is a prototype for what many of these non-profits are becoming. Its bones are beautiful: countless artefacts and archival documents that safeguard the memory of D-Day, the Holocaust, and the rest of the war. Its flesh, however, increasingly resembles something between bloating and the results of plastic surgery addiction. From a restaurant run by a world-renowned chef to a planned 2015 exhibit that features indoor snowfall and simulated fighter jets flying over the visitors’ heads, there are many reasons a family of four has pay $74 for one afternoon (and much more if they can’t avoid the gift shop’s temptations). The National World War II Museum is easily one of the most profitable non-profits around.
On the other side of the spectrum lies another New Orleans-area attraction, the Whitney Plantation. This museum of U.S. slavery, which opened only a few weeks ago, features a plantation tour that has nothing to do with sniffing magnolias and sipping mint juleps. Instead it documents the everyday lives of the enslaved men, women, and children who inhabited Whitney in the antebellum days, lives that were painstakingly lifted and sifted from the archives by Senegalese scholar Ibrahima Seck. The museum tells a story that has never been told in such detail or at such a poignant site. No Disney-fication here.
What non-profits such as the Whitney Plantation (and the World War II Museum) can add to our national memory is something that can’t be provided by the private sector. That’s the reason non-profits get special perks like tax exempt status, grants, and loads of public support in the form of donations and volunteering. As we tentatively stretch our paws into 2015, we hope that this year will see many more of them, big and small, find success with courageous new ideas that give knowledge, care, and hope to the people they serve.