Thursday, August 2, 2012

The heritage product as suggested by a marketing approach

by Tomislav Šola


The number of true traditionalists in the profession is probably rather small these days, but there are many experts who are not doing a good job, even outside the inherited professional tradition. It is not easy to change established ways of thinking and practices. This means that museums continue to interpret their objectives as scientific ambitions which in presentation take on an anaesthetized or even visually attractive appearance. Nor is it easy to ask ourselves who we are, what we are producing, for whom we are producing it, and where we see the quality of the results. Only a few decades ago (if that, in some places) the profession was still focused on scientific work within the limits imposed by the domain of a specific academic discipline. Collecting was both a prerequisite and its consequence. Until recently, museums were still working for an exclusive audience of experts and their regular or supposed clientele. What the community was offered was unacceptable because it was largely incomprehensible and de-contextualized. Now many take it for granted that the focus has switched to deliverables outside the museum.

However, there is even a trend toward returning to the old values according to which museums disseminate knowledge and let the “exhibits speak for themselves”. The misunderstandings are caused by the inadequacy of the occupation1, which does not seem to be able to find the right balance between science and society or between “profit” and mission. Professionalism, which is attained only occasionally (not systemically), is this ability to balance these opposing ambitions. Quite frequently voices are raised warning about the danger of the profession taking the wrong direction, and most often they resort to a narrow, reduced definition of the working process that should not be considered sufficient: “…curators should not let themselves be distracted from their primary task, which is the preservation and enrichment of their collections”2. Collecting and care of the resultant collections are so self-explanatory and comprehensible (like the science which makes them possible) that any trained curator would take them as a starting premise of the job. Therefore, curators are doing a bad job if they forget the principles of museum work, but equally so if they forget that a museum is a institution for communication. Besides that, museums represent immense variety, so generally speaking one should trust a theoretician – a generalist with knowledge of curatorship practice – more than the more frequently occurring curator, who naturally conveys their own particular experience gathered from the perspective of their own museum. In other words, a curator without professional training for the specific working process within an institution of public memory is but a scientist trying to run a public professional programme. A reliable, excellent scientist will always count, but in a situation when most museums have just one or only a few employees, a generalist with good communication skills will see more and know more. The past decade was very much one in which theory finally became important enough to suggest re-orientation of practice. Reactions to these changes have once again made it very trendy to view museums as places where knowledge is created and distributed. That way, it seems, the temptations of management and marketing become minimal: the world is a deceitful kaleidoscope of challenges, so ignoring this or insisting upon reliable tradition gives an illusion of security. It is important to realize that conventional museums are not capable of becoming part of the knowledge industry, because that field is governed by different,somewhat harsher rules: information and knowledge dealers constitute a distinctive business where it would be a rare museum that could survive the competition – one in which the research was only part of the job. The same would apply if museums were (once again) to consider themselves primarily educational institutions, not only because they lack regularity, compulsion or the appropriate professional education, but because it is not their primary role. Neither research nor education should be a description of the museum product: they may be part of it or a means to providing it.

Marketing is a way of producing and retaining an insight into the nature of museums. Concentrating marketing on the consumer reminds museums that marketing is a new term for the sector’s responsibility. It is clear that there is often resentment to such a confrontation with evident truth. Marketing is not a solution to all of our problems; it cannot be a magic wand: it is a perfect reminder of what museums have to deliver and what the desirable quality of their deliverables would be. If used correctly, marketing, as a modern brand of managerial expertise, would pose the necessary questions and suggest,based upon its own research, the strategic and tactical nature of the answers. It has long been believed that marketing belongs to commercial business, but in fact no form of management is reserved solely for commerce. No matter who invented it and why, we know the principles will be the same; only the interpretations and strategic objectives will differ. Convincing marketing will produce precise and simple answers to questions not previously posed: What business are you in? What is your product? Did we ever pay any attention, until relatively recently, to this? Not really, because everything we were doing was obvious – perhaps too obvious to be true.

“The chances for the museum to reach the state of perfect functioning of the institution depend in the first place on the clearness of the definition of its potential functions: one cannot target the goals that are not clearly defined.”3 (Is it not true that a person who is both a theoretician and a practitioner, a curator with insight and vision, separated from the future by several decades, sees clearly what mere practitioners were unable to conceive?) Marketing suggests that kind of pondering and insight. In the gradation of preciseness it must reject some fundamental claims like the seemingly simple one that: “As a matter of fact, a museum, in toto, needs to be public-oriented.”4 This must be understood correctly. The “orientation” in question is not superficial, merely declarative. A poor marketing specialist, usually with an ambition to pursue public relations, will possibly regard everything obtained from the curator as the product, and will therefore probably construe their own task to be the addition of some kind of persuasive mechanism to whatever he or she is engaged to “sell”. Public orientation implicitly comprises a product required by the public, one which suits their needs and, to some extent, their wishes. Therefore, when defining museum services, it is not enough simply to say that a museum offers the public “communication with the artefacts”5, which is precisely the kind of narrow view that the more superficial curators and marketing experts seem willing to accept.

The nature of the product

To make a good product, which is the basis of marketing, it is necessary to create a corporate identity, “to research the market, carry out visitor surveys, build public and media relations and it is also necessary to have appropriate design, interpretation, publicity and advertising.”6 The services a museum offers operate on three levels, so that we can identify the place of the actual product –and consequently its quality – more easily:

  • The scientific range (which is mostly out of the reach and interest of a wider audience);
  • The populist range (which offers sensation, often without particular concern for quality); 
  • The professional range (which stems from knowledge museums and heritage and their role in society);
The last one should be based on a balanced mixture of science and theatre; a mixture which by the type of discourse and contents is suited to the needs and abilities of its audience. Some call it “promotion-focused heritage”7, but that would need an accent upon societal relevance. When trying to define a museum product, some marketing experts believe that the museum is a specific institution which has “intrinsic socially determined or derived functions and characteristics”8 and that most museums are “multiproduct and multiservice”9 organizations. The same author suggests “a product portfolio strategy” and thinks that “a first step in portfolio analysis is to identify the museum’s key programs and businesses”. Instead of such an approach, which measures the success of a portfolio by reconciling the meeting of the museum’s mission criteria (“centrality”) on the one hand with the criteria of brand recognition and reputation (“quality”) on the other, success could be measured in terms of the balance created between the scientific quality of the museum product and the degree to which the museum meets the needs of the community.

What is the product?

Marketing, as a form and part of management, demands clarity, which is not something the sector is used to: “the product must be at the centre of successful marketing”10. What is our product? Unfortunately, it is not easy to define the product, and the fact remains that without a clearly understood product and a clear idea of the quality it should display, there can be no real application of the concept of marketing. Generally speaking, the product is everything that is meant to be exchanged, but generalities are of little use to the pragmatist, as we shall see. Marketing logic really encourages simple definition of the product, and the whole non-profit sector, including museums, is reluctant to see the advantage of doing so. The problem is that in this sector the benefits of clear product definition are not seen immediately and do not have direct effects. Museum literature gives little support to this so the theory faces the tasks of (re)defining the basis of the (museum, heritage) occupation(s) and trade and of major re-conceptualization. The strain of defining a product has beneficial consequences for the occupation in crisis, because it presupposes a vision of quality. This is something the literature has only recently begun to mention. Do we have to say that it is by defining the product and its quality that we are finally achieving a definition of the criteria for working in the museum and heritage business? The very existence of criteria is one of the basic preconditions for the status of the profession. 

Marketing comprises a holistic approach which requires deduction of details from the whole, and the whole from the details, respectively. However, certain notions are central: the product and the user. 

The possible definitions of a product demonstrate the three basic market approaches11. The product may be:  
  • generic, i.e. an expected product; one that suggests itself without effort; this is mostly the case with museums where the product is cheap and economical, to save money, and the user profile ordinary – usually the faithful, culturally conditioned public; in this case marketing can be limited to advertising and distribution;
  • an expanded product; such a product is in itself the result of the marketing process and it requires the entire marketing cycle to be harnessed: from product formation to its advertisement to the public, gauging of its effects, and implementation of improvements; this is the case with some conceptually newer museums;
  • a necessary or useful product; designed as a supplement to the expanded product; it presupposes an ethical responsibility that reveals and attempts to satisfy needs through research and contemplation; there are few products of this type in museums. Here, marketing is used in tandem with full insight into the respective heritage occupation and its mission.
If we take the example of art museums, which are among the most delicate of heritage institutions, and point out just the first possibility of many, the generic product is the standard art exhibition with works of art on display, an opening event and a catalogue12. The exhibition corresponds perfectly with the research interests and domain of expertise of the curator concerned. The priorities in any choices, whether concerning the theme or its interpretation, are those of the “inner circle” – the professionals.
The expanded product might be an exhibition which is consciously directed at a particular segment of the population, some particular group or indeed (with sound reasons) to a “general” public. It comprises multiple points of outside contact, sources of strategic information,preparation for media presentations, sophisticated accompanying events, several levels of information and distribution (posters, outdoor advertising, leaflets, catalogues…), its own accompanying products for sale in the museum shop, and an evaluation of the outcomes of the exhibition. This is a properly marketed product. 

The necessary, useful product comprises all the qualities of the former. It may take the outward form of an exhibition on a topic reflecting public interest (impossible without profound research and insight), or one which explains a particular phenomenon or concept, examines all its social connotations, and attempts to use it to influence and change reality. It is an effort to better the human condition, be it in one respect or more, in the particular group or community, nonetheless with the awareness that any isolated effort is futile but that many make a difference. A contemporary art museum capable of creating this kind of product might demonstrate a programme aimed at establishing basic visual literacy among targeted audiences. This would not exclude initiated connoisseurs, would show concern for the often visually devastating reality of the tax payers, and educate itself future audiences. 

Such an exhibition might speak about the meaning of art, its incorporation in life, and the museum curator and his view of his mission; it may try to speak about art by portraying just one artist and his work, well enough known to be a good case study. Such a series of events and activities comprising exhibition(s) is a particular kind of socially and aesthetically pro-active heritage campaign. It turns a museum into a forum where questions – both spoken and unspoken ones – are posed and answered. If the work of an art museum bridges the gap between the common citizen and art production, and if it synergistically connects its various forms of expression, if it explains art when it is not on a pedestal or hung on the museum wall, then we can speak of its being a convincing, useful product, in this case, of the art museum. The example of the art museum is chosen deliberately, as art is (seemingly) the most difficult part of heritage to communicate effectively or employ for the otherwise underestimated and depreciated daily circumstances of ordinary people. This – the power to change the life of the common, insecure, exploited and manipulated, of the individual that nobody (except in political declarations) treats as an individual, but merely as an ingredient of the grey mass – this is the touchstone of the quality of any heritage institution’s product.A positive elitism, as sane perfection and excellence in whatever we value greatly, remains a possibility but needs to become a public goal,however ideal or unattainable.

Commercial marketing will be of little help in defining the product. It will tend to pin down a particular thing or act and see it as an object of exchange. A softer, broader approach is required, to allow the seemingly immeasurable, impalpable and intangible to be regarded as a product. Therefore, though the structure and vocabulary may remain the same, the definitions are necessarily different. Even marketing experts without cultural insight sense this by guessing correctly that the product may be found in a “blending of science and art”, in “creative blending of inputs”13. The key to a sustainable definition has to come from a broad base of understanding the non-profit status of heritage as a sector and of museums, and their function as one of the public services that should remain a domain of free or assisted access – making clear that they are a basic civil right, like education and health care. This may sound rather “socialist” an idea in the context and against the background of radical capitalist liberalism. Yet the loss of quality we have suffered in education and health care may easily be topped by the loss of culture through excessive commodification and commercialisation of heritage. Both processes are well underway, so the problem of product definition will indeed become the touchstone by which we shall know the level of decadence of the social state we are being exposed to. It is not a matter of understanding an exhibition as a product or not. What is at stake is not mere control of the product development but the social use of public memory. The end to which we use the collective experience has never been the subject of a social contract or some long-term strategy. It is all still hidden within the internal rules of different occupations and particular subjects concerning conservation and care of heritage. A huge professional challenge, yet to attain its full importance, is developing expertise capable of differentiating between the heritage industry, heritage tourism and heritage-focused cultural industry on the one hand, and public heritage institutions on the other. Marketing makes this more obvious than heritage-related occupational theory because it poses clear questions. It is able to function only with clear demarcations and definitions. In that role, marketing is the most perfect reminder of all our obligations, liabilities, tacit commitmentsand social responsibilities. 


One option is to consider that the product is “everything the museum has to offer”.14 “Museums which do not offer high standards of public facilities and customer care will become increasingly unattractive.”15 One can also consider the product to be the “… amalgam of services, people, buildings, facilities, atmosphere, customer care, access and accessibility, corporate presentation, collections, events and activities and many other quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors.”16The same author sees “what essentially makes a museum’s identity and personality”17 in this blend.For some the product is “education” in the museum118, while other authors will see the practical value of the collection as the museum product.19 Moreover, some will see the “tip of the iceberg” in the object or the artefact, but they will still believe that the museum artefact “retains the absolutely essential function.”20 “A museum collection is one that determines the visitors’ experience”21, above all. It may indeed be, but very often it does not fulfil this criterion. A definition of the museum product will not come out of concentration on the collection, nor will it come out of a fascination with the museum artefact. This is not clear to marketing experts, because they do not understand the essence of the museum institution. Curators, on the other hand, find it difficult to understand marketing, because they do not know to what depth the project marketing extends: “museums have always marketed their products – exhibitions, displays and so forth…”22
Unfortunately, they are rarely in a position to properly answer the questions that marketing puts before them because, conceptually, they live in the past. That is why marketing is still an unconvincing variant of the nascent commercial model.
The product can also be seen as the set of services provided by the museum: information and identification services, research facilities, shops, publications, educational programmes for leisure time, and other educational services.23 One often comes across the attitude that “a visit to the museum is the museum’s principal product” 24, but in such a way that this encompasses everything from the car park and clean toilets to the quality and appeal of the collection, exhibition and extra events. In short, the product would be “a coherent and satisfying visit”.25 And in such cases, we are again dealing partly with the product and partly with some of its outward manifestations.

Literature on museums will offer many solutions. However, to consider these particular elements to be the museum product is a way of avoiding difficult solutions and proclaiming the visible service to be the product. According to various authors, equipment, comfort, design, a pleasant atmosphere, a full shop, helpful staff, a real ticket office, good toilets, good signposting, etc., is a welcome basis for the main event that is the permanent exhibition and accompanying programmes. This is the level where the ultimate product is yet to be realized.
Knowing that the final, central product of the museum is completely intangible and invisible should not be a disappointment, either for the inexperienced curator or for the marketing expert. Few among them understand it properly: “although there is a physical product (the collection), what is really being marketed is an intangible […]the importance of the product is […] in the mental impact [it has] on the user or buyer […] the consumer “will receive [this product] as an idea, as information, as mental stimulation.”26If the theatre can cope with this frustration known to all the creative professions, it is time the museum curator realized what business they are in – not science, not information, not education, not entertainment but communication. 27Understood correctly, it contains all of the above.28Communication includes trying to establish an exchange, and therefore it necessarily aspires to affective quality and to the creativity we find in reproductive art. This conceptualized communication quality must have a scientific basis, of course. “A successful popularisation can be performed only on the basis of scientific quality.” It goes without saying that it would be wrong to forget this view of quality. “Only quality deserves to survive. The amount and level of research could be a measure for the chances of survival.” Creativity will decide on the balance between two qualities – the scientific quality and the quality of communication, which the museum user obviously perceives as one. The product is the difference in the visitor between their state before and after their visit, seen in its effects, such as awareness of the environment, self-realization, the quality of contemplation and the social event that was experienced in the museum. It is also the knowledge, the education, and the aesthetic pleasure or inspiration gained in the museum, as well as the contribution made to the individual’s selfconfidence, their awareness of their values, their awareness of the richness we are surrounded with, and their ability to recognize all of these. The development of respect for the environment, built or natural, as an asset which should be carefully looked after because this generation has borrowed it from the next, is also a product. The product should be a means by which the museum is able to create trans-generational moral responsibility built on the concept of contributing to the public good. Every success at bringing back life to a dying tradition, knowledge or skill is a product. The joy that comes from an inspired moment of realization, which is more than simple knowledge, but is a common trait found in the theatre, museums and good schools; in short, something the psychologists call “the Aha! effect”, the relief or joy of understanding – this, too, is a product. The sum of the product is the quantity and quality of all these changes brought about by a visit to the museum. If a museum of natural sciences, for example, succeeds in increasing the visitor’s awareness, in helping the visitor to understand man’s role in nature, this is a delivered product. The nature of the change to the prevailing ignorance lies in the awareness that man has an obligation to adapt to and cooperate with nature; he should take whatever nature gives him, but not by using violence and brutally imposing changes. That is the essential part of the museum product.
Thus, the actual product is the museum’s effect on the individual, and everything that preceded and enabled that effect (the collection, presentation, programme, building, comfort, etc.) is, regardless of its importance, only a means.
For those who see money as something that comes before “unnecessary theorizing”, museums are providing more and more evidence of their hard economic value. They have become the main driving force behind the development and revival of cities and regions. Can we keep them so effective and yet unquestionably dissociated from the commercial sector and its pervasive focus on profit and augmenting that profit? We must. In the explanation of the reasons why this is so important lie new definitions of the (future) profession and of the product, only fleetingly tackled here.