A newsletter on audience research and development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

I’m guessing you all know about the International Council of Museums’ efforts to create a new museum definition. Here are some tweets by individuals sharing their definitions that caught my eye (also check out the Museum 2.0 blog where Seema Rao has been rounding up definitions):

And here’s a longer response by Paul Bowers that took a more visual approach to define what a museum is. Paul classifies by purpose, origin, types of things… and ends with this sketch, classifying what a museum is by whether the museum is interesting, relevant, and valuable:


Had to laugh when I saw that last sketch — On the one hand, I can understand why he wouldn’t want to venture a definition in terms of relevance and value. At the same time, I feel like that may be the most, well, valuable approach to answering the question.

Anyway, this discussion was playing in the back of my mind when I read an article in the Times by Ken Belson called What makes someone a fan? I wrote about the piece last week, and I just can’t stop thinking about it.

The article is about Rich Luker, a social psychologist who studies sports fans. It describes how Luker tries to get leaders in the industry to examine fans’ motivations and focus on understanding the deeper value fans seek in sports (emphasis added):

The sports world is filled with people whose job is to sell tickets, advertisements, sponsorships, luxury boxes and all manner of game-day experiences. The more, the better. Any fan will do.

Rich Luker has tried to get those managers, supervisors and executives to look for something more profound, something he calls “lifetime value.”

To Dr. Luker, the most concrete iteration of that concept is the idea that passionate fans would get a tattoo of their favorite team’s logo to show that it is part of their core identity

Reading this, I started to imagine what it would be like if a group of sports executives and team managers got together to define the terms of their industry.

Now, if you’re like me, comparing museums to sports is a little off-putting. I think museums are more important than sports. Museums serve the public in so many ways, while sports is just about a bunch of people moving some sort of ball through space to make loads of money.

But that can’t be true, can it?

Sports must fulfill some deeper need for at least some fans. It’s difficult for me to understand why some people get so much out of watching a ball hurtle through space, but those people do exist.

We might even say that sports provide more fulfillment for more people than cultural organizations do. After all, I can say, “Hey Siri, what football games are on tonight?” and I’ll get a solid response with scores and schedules.

If I ask what art exhibitions are up right now, I just get some lame list of Google results — some that are more than four months old.

True, there are more financial incentives for sports information to be better organized than information about museum exhibitions. Apple sells AppleTVs that lets people tune in to basketball, not contemporary painting. Still, there may be a higher level of demand for information around sports than culture.


What life goals do sports help so many people realize?

Why do people get tattoos of the Mets’ logo on their chests but not the Met’s logo?

Even if I don’t understand why, sports must serve some people on a deeper level, and that’s what Luker’s work is all about uncovering.

So what is the parallel here?

I imagine that if leaders in the world of sports got together to debate the critical issues of their industry, they might ask, “What does it mean to be a fan? What is a sport? Why do people become sports fans?” and so on.

Similarly, I think museum folks might ask, “What is culture? What is engagement? Why do people become engaged with cultural institutions?”

When I hear the question, “What is a museum?”, it feels like I’m hearing leaders in the world of sports asking, “What is a stadium?”

Yes, I could just be evading a hard question, but I wonder how much impact a new definition of museums will have on museums and their audiences compared to questions like those that Luker is asking about sports and sports fans.

When we ask, “What is a museum?” it’s tempting to think in terms of tasks and activities that the museum’s employees pursue, or what kinds of things the museum preserves and serves to the public, or the things people can do at the museum, like use the bathroom.

I imagine that if the NBA tried to define basketball, they’d start by asking questions about fans’ relationship to the game and the teams they root for — But then, the NBA is in the business of making more fans. ICOM’s goal in re-defining museums may not be to make more museum fans.

What if, instead of asking “What is a museum?”, we asked: “If we opened a tattoo parlor next to the gift shop, who would get our museum’s logo emblazoned on their calf — and why?”

As always, reply to this email to let me know what you think or share your feedback here.

Thanks for reading,


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