Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pranksters in the Museum

Two recent events have got me thinking about pranks and unauthorized activities in museums.
  1. Improv Everywhere staged an event at the Metropolitan Museum in which an actor posing as King Philip IV of Spain signed autographs in front of his portrait, as painted by Diego Velazquez in the 1620s. After some silliness, engagement, and confusion, they were instructed to leave.
  2. Two students, Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler, created an unauthorized ad campaign for the Smithsonian as part of a school project. These "historically hardcore" images attracted a lot of attention on the internet, and when Jenny contacted the Smithsonian about it, she was instructed to remove the Smithsonian logo.
In both cases, outsiders co-opted the museum for their own devices. These unauthorized projects were engaging and attractive. Neither harmed the museums in question, though they both had questionable qualities. The Improv Everywhere actors gleefully passed themselves off as authorities and told visitors that yes, this young man in front of them was in fact 400 years old. The students' ads made unauthorized use of the Smithsonian logo and could be argued to dilute or misrepresent the institutional brand.

So here's the question: what's the right response to this kind of activity? There are two knee-jerk camps--one that says this is all unacceptable and another that says museums should loosen up and embrace the deviance. I feel like it's more complicated than that.

When assessing these kinds of unauthorized activities, here are the three things I'd consider:
  1. What's the quality of the project? Many of the people arguing for the fake Smithsonian ads mentioned how great they are, and that the museum should be pleased to thrilled to get such creative ad work for free. While the ads are indeed funny, engaging, and lovely, not every unauthorized use is. A museum would do better to evaluate this on a case-by-case basis--so the institution can say yes to the gems and no to the duds--rather than having an ironclad rule either way.
  2. Is it a project that would be improved with institutional support? Watching the Improv Everywhere video, I'm struck by the fact that it is the deviant nature of the activity that makes it fun. You watch the action expecting to see the guards intervene, and they become part of the drama. I'm not sure the activity would be as surprising or engaging if it were sanctioned by the museum, and I certainly think it would be a bizarre use of staff time to conduct such an event. Mark Allen of Machine Project talks a lot about the benefits of artists creating "shadow organizations" within museums to comment on and respond to their peccadilloes. Without the formal institution, there can be no deviance. That said, there are some projects that are best conducted with institutional support--Machine Project typically works in this fashion. And some truly outsider projects, like the fabulous Vital 5 unauthorized podcast tour of the Portland Art Museum, create products that I'd love to see museums adopt and champion.
  3. By shutting down the unauthorized project, are you working against your core values or mission? In many cases, the reasons these projects get rejected is to protect the institutional brand against interlopers. But brand is not as important as mission--and both contribute to public image. In the Improv Everywhere situation, I only see a loose connection between the Met's mission and the unauthorized activity insofar as the museum wants to engage people with the art. But the Smithsonian ads are a different story. The Smithsonian is a public institution that is actively seeking to make itself more open and pursuing a vision that positions the Smithsonian as belonging to everyone. By shutting down a high-quality deviance that was garnering enthusiasm for the institution, the Smithsonian may have done more harm to its image than good. Any organization's public image is shaped by lots of material and commentary in the marketplace--not just that institution's press releases and logo. It's worth remembering that when evaluating any given deviance.
What do you think about these kinds of pranks and unauthorized uses of the institution? How do you think museums should respond to or engage with the pranksters?

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