[I’d like to apologise in advance for how long this post is. I just have a lot of feelings! Well, that and Tumblr doesn’t allow ‘Read More’ breaks on photo posts. Foiled again.]
So for the past few weeks, I’ve had these two gems printed out and propped up on either side of my computer monitor at work. I know, you’ve all already seen them, and think they’re awesome - I think they’re awesome too, but that isn’t the reason I keep them there. Not the only reason, anyway. I like to have them there as a sort of moral lesson in Letting Go.
If you’ve read the story of how these came about (of which you can find more here), you know that they were created by artist Jenny Burrows and copywriter Matt Keppler as part of a portfolio project - the idea being to devise an advertising campaign for the Smithsonian Museum that would appeal to a high school and college-aged demographic. Somebody stumbled across their online portfolio, submitted the posters to Reddit, and the rest is history.
Or, not quite.
The posters went viral. Like, really viral. Front-page-on-Reddit viral. Phonecalls-from-Washington-DC-news-outlets viral. Great, right? Not exactly. See, the posters you’re looking at above aren’t the ones that spread so rapidly across the internet, and garnered such great acclaim. Remember, they were created as a mock Smithsonian advertising campaign; where you see a general ‘Museums’ logo now, the originals sported the logo of that venerable institution. And they weren’t too happy about all the attention.
After contacting the Smithsonian, Jenny Burrows replaced the logo on the posters. The only problem is, that’s precisely why they went viral in the first place. To quote from the artist’s own blog:
Our goal was to reach high school and college students, to try and engage them in a subject that many of them find extremely boring. To encourage them to learn more about people who they might have disregarded as stiff and dull. I think I can say without a doubt, if this had been a real campaign, it would have been immensely successful.
I have seen so many people commenting, saying things like “I want to go to the Smithsonian now!” and “History is awesome! I want these on my wall!” (Seriously, I have.)
People were excited - not only by the cleverness of the posters, but to see an institution as capital-R Respectable as the Smithsonian engaging so playfully with pop culture. To see them talking to young people without trying to patronise them, and without sounding forced. To see the Smithsonian just plain not taking themselves too seriously.
Naturally, the Smithsonian couldn’t be having with that.
Okay, I’m not exactly being fair. The Smithsonian is a massive entity, after all, and government-run to boot. For every person there who was unhappy at having lost control over their image, I’m sure there were a dozen who loved the posters and would have been just as happy to endorse them. But them’s the breaks, not just for the Smithsonian, but for any institution paid for out of somebody else’s pockets.
Still. This is nothing if not a demonstration of people-power - the very people the Smithsonian, like all museums everywhere, has no doubt struggled to engage. Sometimes you can harness that people-power… but sometimes it just happens. And putting your foot down never works half so well as letting it happen. As letting go.
This campaign was created for free, by people with an obvious affection for the Smithsonian. All this publicity was generated for free, by internet denizens who were excited and energised by the Smithsonian’s willingness to take risks; to poke fun at the perceived stuffiness of museums with a wink and a tip of the hat. Now, when I read recaps of the whole affair on this blog or that, it’s a different story altogether. Nobody’s ranting and raving at the Smithsonian, to be sure but there’s a distinct whiff of resignation whenever the story arrives at its inevitable conclusion.
We’re not angry, Smithsonian. We’re just disappointed.
Museums like to talk the talk about letting go - but that’s a far cry from walking the walk. And if we mean it when we say that we want to let go, to democratise knowledge and create a collective, participatory ownership of culture and history, should we be doing the same when it comes to our image? If we want it to become Their museum instead of Ours, do we contradict ourselves if we insist on controlling how They see Us?
To end on a lighter note (and one that won’t have Marketing coming after me in the night), I’ve been scratching my head trying to think of what a British answer to these terribly American posters might look like. Anybody have any ideas?
Reblogging my own thinky thoughts once again; this is one I’d like to keep for the record. And, you know, generate discussion on as widely as possible.
I’m just saying.
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