‘Museum’ was not a word that tests really well with the under-30 and 40-year-olds,” especially in the context of radio and television, Ms. Mitchell said.I'm not sure what research Ms. Mitchell based her comment on, but I'm hardly surprised by her findings. Despite the herculean efforts many museums take to offer accessible, cool, inviting experiences to the public, the word museum is still laden with the ghost of "don't touch" past. Add to this the fact that many museums no longer offer the basic collections and research services associated with them historically, and the appeal of the word diminishes. In the example of the Paley Center, the NY Times article continues:
Moreover, the name was somewhat misleading: some patrons would arrive expecting to see, say, Archie Bunker’s chair. In fact, until recently, museumgoers had nothing that they could see, unless they wanted to watch a specific old program. As part of the continuing changes, the West 52nd Street space now offers a rotating display, which now features Middle Eastern media, including a live feed of Al Jazeera’s English television channel.But does switching to "Center" really clear up the fact that the place is a repository of and distribution center for media content? And more importantly, will it attract more visitors, members, and gifts?
I don't think so. The word Museum is not powerful enough, alone, to attract or repel visitors. Museum means different things in different markets. It's interesting that science museums have started to gravitate towards "center" to convey interactivity, and yet childrens' museums are rarely called centers and don't seem to suffer under the Museum label (though drunken variations of the Funatarium abound).
As an illustration, consider the following names:
- Pirate Museum
- Art Museum
- Rock Star Museum
- History Museum
In fact, Museum can be quite a useful word, especially if your collection is small, your topic is odd, or you generally seek credibility. Driving across the country last month, I was amazed at the zillions of road signs for museums--it seemed like we passed more museums than truck stops. Many were local historical, but there are also Harley-Davidson dealerships, locksmiths, and candy stores with small window signs that say "AND MUSEUM." Labeling your collection--however dinky--a museum puts it into a useful category that signals value, organization, and public presentation of the stuff.
What if you think you are creating something so beyond the standard museum, either in collection, presentation style, or interpretation, that you want a new word? It's hard to create a new genre around a single location. The Exploratorium did it--and spawned off many "wondariums" and "discoveriums" trying to tie into the same spirit of activity and invention that makes the original a success. But the Experience Music Project? Sony Wonderlab? Will those brands define new genres? Are these places helped or hindered by their non-traditional names?
When the International Spy Museum was first being conceptualized, there was a name study commissioned. The designers initially favored a more mysterious name, the House on F Street, which they felt conveyed the intrigue of the future site. But people surveyed overwhelmingly prefered the straightforward "Spy Museum." And going with the Museum label has probably had other legitimacy benefits for SPY, which has been criticized as too Disneyesque. The House on F Street could be a haunted house, a ride, a movie... the Spy Museum is clear, and they've been able to stretch what they offer within that label.
The pirate museum in Key West, Pirate Soul, went the opposite direction and assumed an unclear name. Is "Pirate Soul" a strong enough brand to stand on its own, or do they lose potential visitors who look at it and think, what is that thing? In my mind, they missed a huge opportunity to be the Pirate Museum. When your content is wacky and compelling enough, the word Museum adds a legitimacy that transforms a potential tourist trap into a valuable attraction experience in the eyes of potential guests.
But what about the Paley Center and other museums offering more traditional content? If "art museum" is a deadly phrase, but you are a place that collects and shows art, what are your options?
I have a personal aversion to the word Center. I went to a junior high that was a feeder from many elementary schools, including one called the Center for Early Education. We always talked about those kids who came from "the Center" like it was some Orwellian futuristic kid-pod. But beyond my personal association, I think Center suffers from the fact that there's no public concept of what a center is. A park or library, sure. But a center? What is that thing?
A marketing blogger commented about the Paley Center's lack of context, saying:
If you're searching outside the word Museum, why not adopt less ambiguous words with strong cultural associations? There are evocative location-based words, like Park, Alley, Lab, Station, and Market. There are action-oriented words, like Project and Exchange. Even words like Club, Gang, Crew--which connote more social than physical organizations--are identifiable expressions of some of the things museums are trying to be.
If it's not a museum then what is it? Center for Media is open to interpretation varying from a room with a computer in a middle school to a State Department of Censorship, or (hopefully) an intriguing destination that offers rich content. ...Best Buy is a Center for Media. YouTube is a Center for Media, the Apple Store is a Center for Media, Pearl Art Supply is a Center for Media, and so is the Public Library.
Of course, at the end of the day, it's what's inside that counts. And it will always be more powerful, marketing-wise, to have visitors walking out saying "That was the best museum I've ever been to!" than saying "That was the best thingamajig I've ever been to!" If you can make your content compelling, exciting, and glorious on the inside, word will spread and you could be calling yourself Aunt Ethel and people would still come.
What words could you imagine on your institutional masthead? How has being a Museum been a help or a hindrance in your world?