1.1 Statement of the Problem
1.1.1 Topic Description
For my project I intend on researching the economic accessibility of museum institutions in Atlanta. Museums have historically been places for white, upper class patrons, often excluding the working and poor class as well as other races and ethnicities. This history has been taken into account and changes have been made to make museums more accessible to all; however, while some museums may boast equal accessibility, there are systemic factors which can hamper this accessibility among different socio-economic groups. The varied conditions of life among these groups dictate their ability to meet the different elements required by museums for admission. In the case of the museums, many of these elements are required for the upkeep of the museum and its collection, but alienate the less fortunate. Location, cost of admission and ability to take free time are just a few of the most common factors. There are many other unseen factors which are unknown to all but the lower classes because of the lack of focused research on this topic. I hope to highlight these unseen factors in my research.
Recognizing the literature which already exists surrounding entrance fees as a major barrier in museum accessibility, I hope to focus my research on the other, mostly unresearched factors which impact museum-goer’s access to museums. After all, money is not only spent entering museums; depending on where museums are located, people also have to pay for parking and public transportation. Museums may be located in rich districts of cities, making it difficult for poor people to get to them. These invisible factors can allow museums to regulate access, even as they laud reduced entrance fees. Furthermore, these invisible factors can come as an unwelcome surprise, resulting in people paying more for the museum experience than they had intended. While middle to upper class people may not see this as more than an inconvenience, for the poor this can result in a sense of alienation and distrust as they are forced to pay money which they may need for other, more important things. While I will, of course, introduce entrance fees as one factor which affects accessibility to Atlanta museums (to not do so would be a blind spot in my research), these rarely-studied invisible factors are just as important to consider in matters of museum accessibility.
The current project is pure/basic research; in the future, I would like to extend this project to become applied research, as I continue in Museum Studies and become familiar with more museums. The knowledge created during this study will allow me to acknowledge the inequalities within museum accessibility and brainstorm ways museums can truly become spaces for the general public while ensuring those strategies are not detrimental for the museum itself. I hope that with this project I will be able to suggest concrete factors which museum administrators can fix or find ways to work around in order to make museums more accessible. I anticipate using the results of this project as I enter a career of museum curation and administration in order to enact these necessary changes with the information gathered.
There are two populations which are central to my research project. The first population I am surveying includes museum patrons attending Second Sundays. Second Sundays is a program run through the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The High Museum of Art is the primary art museum in Georgia, and perhaps one of the most famous museums in Atlanta. It contains the largest public art collection in Georgia, featuring work from all over the world with a special emphasis placed on art from the south. On Second Sundays, which take place, as the name suggests, on the second sunday of every month, the entrance fee for the High is waived, and the museum hosts a number of special events and activities, each based around the theme for that month. Due to the waived entry fee, the museum is considered more accessible to the public, which is reflected in the increase of museum visitors. According to High Museum representatives, between 4,000 and 6,000 people attend each Second Sunday. It is because of this increase in museum attendance and the waived entry fee that I believe I can reach a more diverse socio-economic population in order to survey them about the factors which may make it difficult for them to go to the museum.
I recognize that this does present a biased population because I am surveying people who are at the museum. However, I believe that Second Sundays are my best option for a broad survey because of the aforementioned diverse range of people who attend. The only other option would be to survey the entire city of Atlanta. With my limited resources and time range of only two months, I am unable to do this; therefore, I will have to rely on this biased population.
The second half of my study population relies on the museum administrators who are in charge of introducing new measures for increased accessibility. The High Museum of Art announced their intention to focus on broadening the diversity of their visitors and art collection with the introduction of their new director, Randall Suffolk, in 2015. (Mr. Suffolk is one of the museum administrators who I hope to interview.) Thus far, the museum has noticed more racial diversity in their visitors and added 1,500 new pieces of art to their collections, such as African Art (“People”). Within this much smaller population, I hope to gather information on the previously known factors which may prohibit museum accessibility and how those factors have thus far been circumvented. This counts, in a way, as both gathered data and prior research. The institutional point of view on accessibility in conjunction with the data collected from museum guests will be useful as I consider whether and how strategies to broaden socioeconomic accessibility to museums work, and analyze the blind spots. Through a synthesis of the information provided by both, I am confident that I can gather the information that I need to create a sound conclusion and an initial equal accessibility plan for future museums.
While the question of museum accessibility is perhaps not one of the most crucial questions researchers consider when looking at systemic economic inequality, the fact remains that museums have come to take a place of honor in knowledge systems. Though not the main source of knowledge, museums are vital as places of heritage, compendiums of history and educational resources. To deny people the right to see that heritage and gain knowledge due to their economic standing is a symptom of an unbalanced, unequal society that does not value the lower classes. Furthermore, it leads to the alienation and sometimes the degradation of the poor, especially as they are denied the educational opportunities which the middle and upper class can experience. This furthers the gap between classes and helps ensure that the upper and middle classes stay in power, while the poor remain downtrodden. I recognize that simply improving equal museum accessibility cannot fix this, but is a step in the right direction. Therefore, in order to create a more equal society, issues such as museum accessibility should be studied.
I am led to my research by questions about the extent to which the system put in place by Atlanta museums (often dictated by the museum’s board of directors and sponsors) excludes people who are members of the lower-middle and poor class. Many of the decisions made about the workings of the museum are at the wishes of their donors, who are often affluent white people (Jung 255). They often do not recognize that what they decide, in order to create a certain kind of “respectable” museum, can result in the alienation of others. Certainly, museums have recently shown signs of wishing to allow more people access to their collections regardless of social standing, but they are unable to do so without outside assistance, especially as they are increasingly being funded less by the government. This balance of what is necessary for museums to continue to exist and what can be done to allow greater access among socio-economic groups is tenacious, but possible, as museums like the Smithsonian Institutions have shown. In order for museums to reach “the general public,” factors which prevent the lower class from making use of museums and the information in them first needs to be acknowledged and then fixed. The process for this to happen is what this project seeks to begin.
1.2 Literature Review
Research on museum accessibility is a relatively new phenomenon. The following sections highlight the themes found within works on socioeconomic access to museums in order to provide background about this topic. These include the history of museums and museum accessibility, demographic access to museums, factors impacting museum accessibility, alienation, and the benefits of museums. Research on Atlanta demographics is included to provide background on my research population. Researchers agree about and have proven the following: museums have a place of honor in society; however, factors which effect museum access (such as entrance fees and museum location) affect low income people more than wealthy, white patrons, resulting in their alienation from museums as low income peoples are less able to access museums and believe that the museum is not a resource available to them.
Though the following seems to present a cohesive background on these subjects, it is important to note that this literature review has attempted to balance the unbalanced information on museum accessibility. Some themes are studied more than others; as such, these sources have specifically been selected because they make reference to necessary but obscure themes, even though some assume plausible claims or do not contain in depth analysis. Furthermore, because of the difficulty in researching “museum goers,” much of the data collected in these studies comes from a biased population (people at museums). This has caused many critiques in museum studies. More thought on how to best perform research is necessary, as is further, substantiated research, much like this paper. However, most literature comes to the same or similar overall conclusions regarding museum accessibility specifically, leaving little doubt to the validity of the conclusions in this literature.
1.2.1 The History of Museums and Museum Accessibility
The origin of the museum goes back to antiquity. Greek and Egyptian temples were used to store offerings to their deities, and later exhibited items taken during conquests in those same temples for the public to see. Later, the museum was separated from religious institutions (Mudzanani 331). Throughout all of the variations of the museum, however, one characteristic has remained the same: museums are social and educational centers, allowing people learn about a variety of subjects and study what we do not know, and problems we need to solve (332).
Scholars have shown that since the creation of the museum, various factors which effect museum accessibility were used to control who had access to the museum. Ben Cowell notes that some British museums and galleries used a changing entrance fee to control who could enter the museum at a given time. When the fee was high (in the afternoon) the upper and middle class attended museums. In the evenings, when entrance fees were lowered, the working class could access museums. He also notes that museums took advantage of job structure in order to determine who attended at what times. People who worked during the day could only enter the museum during a select time in the evening before the museum closed, whereas the rich, who had time to spare, could take time off to peruse the museum at their leisure (Cowell 205).
Historically, those who have run museums have remained the same as well. In the western world, this refers to mostly rich white men. This trend is mirrored in fundraising; “traditional” fundraising relies on the support of wealthy, white patrons. Because they kept the museum running, their interests were placed over those of non-wealthy, non-white patrons (Jung 255). These trends have been changing; however, prior to this, it was rare that issues such as socio-economic accessibility were researched and solved.
1.2.2 Museums as a Social and Economic Resource
Scholars are split on the value of museums as it pertains to the larger community. Booth notes that with the introduction of a museum into a poor neighborhood in Glenorchy, Tasmania, many poor people lost their homes and their jobs. While the museum was intended to bring development into the poorer communities in Glenorchy, the prestige and audience of middle and upper class people associated with it caused the opposite thing to happen as people from richer communities moved into the area, causing gentrification (Booth et al. 13). However, Bryan, Munday, Bevin and Mudzanani argue that museums, as places of heritage, increase the cultural capital of the surrounding community (Bryan et. al. 134). Mudzanani notes that the resources of the museum and knowledge stored in it offers opportunities for further education and jobs (333). These researchers acknowledge that the socioeconomic impact of museums depends on the community, but holds that museum services and the income made by the location of a museum increase revenue brought into the larger community (Bryan et. al. 150).
Jung and Thebaut seem to fall in the middle of this argument. Jung recognizes that museums increase the cultural capital of the surrounding community, but they do not reach a diverse audience, which can negatively impact the poor if the museum is located in a poor community. Jung says that because museums are public spheres, they are required to reach a more diverse audience and adapt to the surrounding community (265). Thebaut notes that this is difficult because of the lack of funding for museums, but that museums should receive grants to subvert this issue while keeping the cultural and societal benefits of museums available to poor communities (563).
1.2.3 Demographics and Museum Access
Demographics impact people’s attitudes, experiences and behaviors as they apply to museums (Dawson and Jensen 132). Bickford notes that generally, museum administrators assume a general level of education (college level or higher) when it comes to who accesses museums (275). As a consequence of this assumption, people with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to visit museums because the museum is geared toward them (Bickford 282). However, different demographics access different types of museums at different rates. For example, art museums are more likely to be visited by people with higher educational degrees, while natural history museums have a more equal range of attendance by people of different educational rankings (286). Lin and Jung also note that most visitors are affluent members of society (white, wealthy men), and that museums are often designed to appeal to them, rather than “the general public” (Lin 59). As a result, other racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups do not attend museums as much, in part due to the factors listed in the following section (Falk 55). The recent privatization of the museum sector, specifically, has resulted in increasing inaccessibility among lower-class people because museums have become more expensive (Thebaut 562).
1.2.4 Entrance Fees and Other Factors Impacting Accessibility
Researchers such as Falk and Thebaut have noted varying factors which influence museum accessibility. These include socioeconomic (money) issues, assumed institutional behaviors as a result of the history of segregation/racism and classicism in the museum and surrounding communities (Falk 42), difficulties physically accessing museums because of their location (Thebaut 562), cultural/ethnic beliefs that place a value or lack thereof on museum-going (Falk 43), and inability to take time off work to access museums (53). Booth, O’Connor, Franklin, and Papastergiadis also note that most people of a lower socioeconomic class chose not to visit the museum because of their low exposure to the arts (11), perception of being out of place due to the high price of food, drinks and gift shop items (14), and worry about how they would be perceived due to behavior (23). However, most cohesive research about museum accessibility has focused on the barrier admission fees create. Falk, Kirchberg, Lin and Thebaut all note that the people they interviewed state that museum entrance fees are the biggest barrier to museum access (Kirchberg 4), especially those who belong to the lower class (Lin 62).
Yet, many researchers note that with the institution of free admission the number of non-white and lower-income people who accessed the museum did not grow substantially. One example of this is from Cowell’s research; he notes that when the British government instituted free admission to all UK museums in the early 2000’s, middle and upper-class white visitation went up by 87% (211). However, there was little recorded increase in the percentage of people of non-white races and ethnicities and lower socioeconomic classes (only 1-2%) who began to go to museums due to the institution of free admission (214). Kirchberg suggests two reasons for this phenomenon: one, that entrance fees made the museum a desirable place to be (2), and two, that educational levels and the habitus among members of the lower class (as explained Pierre Bourdieu), effects the motivation of people in the lower class to visit museums (10). Dawson and Jensen agree with this; they state that free entry only impacts the people who have the ability to understand the knowledge and heritage in museums and are members of a class in society which may make use of them (133). Thus, the habitus of social classes plays just as big a role in museum access as other physical factors.
1.2.5 Alienation in Museums
A major effect of the factors limiting museum accessibility is the resulting sense of alienation. In the research of Jung, Falk, Booth, Lin and Bickford, all note that the low income people they interviewed stated that they frequently felt unwelcome in museum in part because of these admission barriers (Falk 54). Jung even creates a new theory as a result of her research on this subject. She calls this the tragedy of the anticommons. In this theory, Jung states that the decisions of a handful of people (in this case, the curators and administrators of museums) exclude others from public places through physical and psychological methods (260). As a result of this alienation and as time goes on, the lower class becomes less interested in attending museums because they believe museums to be inaccessible. For example, Lin talks about “imagined entry fees,” where people assume that because one museum requires entry fees, all do, and that entry prices are more expensive than they are in reality (63). These perceived prices and the inability to pay them results in alienation, which is reproduced among poor people even if they are not true. In this way entrance barriers results in alienation and ideological changes among poor people, who believe that attending museums is simply not for them (Booth et al. 27).
1.2.6 Atlanta Demographics
While researching socioeconomic accessibility to Atlanta Museums, socioeconomic demographics are important to consider. Most sources agree on the exact data, leaving little reason for questioning. While there are some holes in the census data, what is relevant to this project is encapsulated here. In Atlanta the median household income is $49,398, with an average per capita income of $38,686 (“U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts”). Within Dekalb County the average weekly wage is $965, and within Fulton County it is $1,240. This data does not take into account income tax and living expenses, which vary based on living situations (“Georgia County Snapshot”). Atlanta housing costs an average of $1,000 per month for rent, and $222,300 to buy a house. Finally, 24% of Atlantans live below the poverty line (“U.S Census Bureau Quickfacts”).
This research on the history of museums and museums accessibility, the benefits of museums, museum visitor demographics, museum access barriers and alienation supports the conclusion that past and present exclusion from museums as a result of museum entrance barriers results in alienation. Because museum entrance barriers seem to target low income people, who make up the demographic that attends the museum the least, an ideology is created that museums are not places for them to be. Combined with the prestige of museums in society, this alienation can negatively impact the poor. Taking into account this conclusion as well as the information on Atlanta demographics, this project will also investigate, as best as possible, the validity of the belief that this theory applies to visitors at the High Museum.
1.3 Relevant Theory
The first theory I will use as a framework for my research is Political Economy and Marxism. This theory is based on the writings of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, both of whom were preoccupied with the idea of class struggle, particularly in the context of capitalist societies. It focuses on the frictions caused by elites holding most of the money, cultural capital and power in a society. The modes of production and resources available are what society is based on; these determine the infrastructure of society, including institutions, which in turn shapes the ideology of a society. The upper class, because it controls modes of production, controls institutions and ideology and uses those to control lower classes. According to Marxism, it is only through class struggle that the classes can move through the various economic stages to communism, which creates a more equal society. Marx separated the theory into four points: “the physical reality of people, the organization of social relations, the value of the historical context of development, and the human nature of continuous praxis” (Morrow and Lusteck).
This theory is relevant to my project because of its focus on class struggle. As museums, in the past, have been funded and filled by the upper class, they were designed for the access of upper classes. This often resulted in the alienation of lower socio-economic classes, and thus created a class struggle (among other struggles) when it came to museum accessibility.
Postmodernism started as an intellectual movement which opposed the main tenets of modernism, especially in relation to art, architecture and philosophy. It was based off Neitzsche’s ideas of the correlation between language and social structure. It focuses on text and language as fundamental to knowledge systems, the importance of literary analysis, an interrogation of the reality of representation, “a critique of metanarratives… an argument against method and evaluation… a focus on power relations” and criticism of Western institutions (such as the museum) and knowledge systems (Salberg et. al.). This theory emphasizes the importance of subjectivity in fieldwork and the presentation of new knowledge, but recognizes that this subjectivity is difficult, and argues that objectivity is impossible. As a result, this manifests as research which is directly informed by the researcher’s own context and beliefs; therefore, such research is rarely completely culturally relative and does not take into account the perspectives of different races, economic classes or ethnicities. Postmodernism has been elaborated on most popularly by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (Salberg et. al.).
This (broad) theory is relevant to my research because of its focus on critiques of language, representation, power relations among socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups and western institutions. My research concentrates on these critiques. The language used in museums and museum marketing can be polarizing, resulting in the alienation of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. This theory, therefore, lends itself directly to analyzing and critiquing the accessibility of museums. I also recognize that from my middle class, white perspective, there are some issues which I will not fully understand, as postmodernism suggests.
2.1 Primary Research Question
My core research question is this: How does socioeconomic status influence visits to Atlanta museums?
2.2 Research Objectives
There are five research objectives for this project:
- What factors affect the ways people of different socioeconomic statuses can access the resources made available by museums?
- What is the target audience marketers focus on for museum attendance?
- What strategies do Atlanta museums use to broaden socioeconomic diversity?
- How often do members of different socioeconomic groups visit museums?
- For what reasons/occasions do members of different socioeconomic statuses go to Atlanta museums?
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