Museums are more popular than ever

Author: Tim Hoheisel, HMA Cultural

Early in my career, 15 years or so ago, I visited a unique museum in the Twin Cities.  As a new museum professional, I was curious about all the different museums in the area so I took time to go to the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.  The museum highlighted strange devices that supposedly worked miracles.  Spoiler alert—they did nothing at all.  For example, in the collection is a “psychograph,” which measures the size of bumps on the human head to determine someone’s personality.  In the nineteenth century, the science of “phrenology,” reading those skull bumps allegedly determined character traits like intelligence, spirituality, suavity, and chastity.  In reality, the bumps on a human head have nothing to do with personality, or anything else for that matter. 

The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices no longer exists but the collection was acquired by the Science Museum of Minnesota where part of it is on display.  On a recent visit, I saw the collection once again.  I did not remember the “Prostate Gland Warmer,” however, from my first visit.  The rectal probe device, from the early twentieth century, allegedly cured hemorrhoids and constipation as well as an enlarged prostate.  Like the psychograph, the prostate gland warmer did nothing for a person’s health.  I pity the poor men who used it and thought that they were getting some benefit from it. 

The idea of the objects on display and the collection to expose nonsensical medicine, quackery, and pseudo-science while advocating rational and scientific ideas.  As a museum collection I think it is fascinating.  It is part of our collective heritage as a nation.  As ludicrous, and dangerous, as some of the objects were, someone at some point in time thought that they were on the right track medically.  The museum collection, and others like it, serve as guide post in our search for the truth. 

So Many Museums

Until 2014, the number of museums in the United States was assumed to be around 17,000.  That number came from a 1990s museum census.  The number includes general museums, historic houses and sites, history museums, art museums, children’s museums, aquariums, arboretums, botanical gardens, nature centers, natural history and anthropology museums, planetariums, science and technology centers, specialized museums, and zoological parks in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Any organization that has a collection and interprets it can be considered a museum.  A zoo contains a collection of animals, etc., they are on display for people to view and their lives and habitat are interpreted through labels and programs—hence, a “museum.” 

A report by the Institute of Museums and Library Services, IMLS, shows that we were way off in our estimation of how many museums actually are in the U.S.  According to the press release from May 2014, there are 35,144 museums in America.  Don’t believe me?  Go here and see for yourself hereThere are more museums in America than there are Starbucks coffee shops and McDonalds restaurants—combined!  I happen to think that that is a very good thing. 

The usual suspects rise to the top when we think of what a great museum is in America: the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim, the Field Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American History, and the Getty Center come to mind. 

The Getty Center , Los Angeles, California

The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

I love museums in general, all kinds, but I like unique museums the most, the ones that people may not even know exist.  On my bucket list is a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania.  It is known as the MONA, in opposition to the MOMA in New York, and it calls itself an “unmuseum,” a “subversive adult Disneyland.”  That alone makes me want to visit it.

The East Coast has many wonderful museums, but did you know that there is a Museum of Bad Art in Boston?  Or a hair museum in Independence, Missouri, one of many worldwide?  There is a UFO museum and research center in New Mexico, of course, a circus museum, a funeral history museum, and several barbed wire museums in America.  If you can think of it there is probably a museum about it somewhere in the world.  Yes, there is a sex museum, two actually, in New York and in Amsterdam.  There is a spy museum in Washington D.C.  There is museum of toilets in India, a museum toilet seats in San Antonio, and a museum of toilet paper in Madison, Wisconsin, but sadly, it closed in 2000. 

In the Midwest, in addition to the collection of questionable medical devices, there are some other unique local museums.  The Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, sounds like a place I want to visit.  Ever visit the National Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.  How about the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, South Dakota?  There are a number of beer museums in the Midwest, several in Wisconsin, which is not surprising. 

More Popular than Ever

Museums, no matter what their subject or collection, are more popular than ever.  So many people want to go to the top museums in the world that the museums are having to impose visitation restrictions.  According to a New York Times article from July 2014, the most popular museum in the world, the Louvre in Paris, had 9.3 million visitors in 2013.  The British Museum in London had 6.7 million visitors.  The number of visitors to all museums is increasing annually. 

The Sistine Chapel can only hold about 2,000 people at a time and has 20,000 visitors a day.  So many people want to see Michelangelo’s famous ceiling fresco that the Vatican has to continually upgrade the climate-control systems in the chapel.  Thousands of people a day going through the chapel changes the heat and humidity of the space and can have significant adverse effects on the more than 500 year old artwork.  Museums like the Louvre, Uffizi in Italy, and Hermitage in Russia are having to find new ways to balance preservation with access, which is an age-old issue for museums.  The number of people visiting museums is at an unprecedented level. 

The Museum of Old and New Art , Hobart, Tasmania

Why are people flocking to museums in greater numbers than ever?  Several reasons.  Museums exhibit real artifacts and real art.  In our hyper-digital online world, interacting with a real sculpture, or painting, or historical artifact, is a much more gratifying and moving experience than seeing a tiny photo of it on a cell phone screen.  Anyone can pick up a textbook and can read about Renaissance art, but when you are standing in the Sistine Chapel looking up, nothing can compare to that. 

The next time you take a trip, check out the museums of wherever you are.  You will have a memorable experience.  Likewise, be a tourist in your own town and visit the museums in your own back yard.  You won't be disappointed. 

If you really want to know a place, the place in which you live, you have to dig a little deeper.  The absolute best place to do that is at a museum.   

For further reading, below are clickable links:

The Facebook page of HMA Cultural is an aggregator of recent articles, news, websites, and other material related to museums.  This is the first, and I would argue best, source to go to for joining the conversation about history, museums, and art.

What is a Museum?

Museums…So What?

Masterworks vs. the Masses

There are more museums in the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonalds – combined

The Participatory Museum (book)

Reinventing the Museum (book)

Museum Administration (book)

Future of Museums

AAM Trendswatch 2015 referenced in article above

 Museums, Temples of Delight

Museums matter: what makes our cultural institutions so special?

 Museum TED talks

Weaving Narratives in Museum Galleries

Opening up the Museum: Nina Simon

Building a Museum of Museums on the Web


From the  Museum of Bad Art , Boston, MA.  Yes, such a place really exists.  Sounds like something Portlandia would parody-- Bad Art, Good Walls . 

From the Museum of Bad Art, Boston, MA.  Yes, such a place really exists.  Sounds like something Portlandia would parody--Bad Art, Good Walls

The  Museum of Broken Relationships , Zagreb, Croatia

The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia