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The branding issue reminds Lord of a recent controversy at the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, whose curators canceled an exhibition of clothing by a famous French fashion designer. The curators thought the corporate sponsor wanted too much control over the exhibition. Lord wonders, “Is the issue of a Publix supermarket any different from walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing a Coco Chanel exhibition that's sponsored by Chanel perfume?” Yes, she thinks. Why? “Children really should be protected from advertising, above all in places that are in the not-for-profit sector,” she says. “And I think that's a very strong argument. I think children's museums should be sensitive to it. I actually think it's a huge issue.”
Deborah Spiegelman disagrees. “I really don't see it as any different than the 5K run or the different special events around our town that are sponsored by corporate sponsors,” she says. “Corporate sponsorship has not led by any means the content of the museum,” she insists. “The content was set forth, and then, following the plans ... I went out and sought sponsors for each of the areas.”
But enough of this yucky talk. Come on, let's check out another exhibit. Look! There's the Bank of America!
Listen up, kids. Bobby, hush. For a long time, the Bank of America exhibit was going to be named the NationsBank exhibit. But in 1998 NationsBank merged with a bank called BankAmerica, and they decided to name the bigger bank the Bank of America. You may have noticed recently that the name on the skyscraper that glows with pretty colors at night recently changed from NationsBank to Bank of America. The company had to change names at all of its buildings across the nation. Pretty confusing, huh? So Bank of America recently launched a $100-million advertising campaign to make people notice the new brand name. That's a lot of money. We hope they have plenty of it in the bank! (They should, because in July the bank's executives decided to fire about 10,000 employees all across the country.)
Traditionally bankers have been very generous to museums in the United States. “We've had strong support from banks in our community,” says Deb Turner, who raises money for the Indianapolis Children's Museum,which was founded in 1925 and is one of the oldest in the nation. But Turner likes to make sure the bank's name is presented in a “tasteful” manner. Remember Mrs. Lord's little plaque idea? Right on!
The goal of the Bank of America installation here, complete with ATMs and tellers, is to “teach children about money and exchange,” according to a museum newsletter. But isn't another kind of transaction taking place here, too? Some people think so. Bobby and Shalonda, shhh! This includes you. “What happens is that people want to do big things and they need money, and their mind first goes to how can they get it without thinking about what are they giving away in exchange for it,” says University of Miami art professor Paula Harper. The museums want to do big things, too, and the government isn't giving away much money anymore. But Harper believes there's too much reliance on corporate money. “You make a choice about which way you're going to go. If you choose not to accept corporate money, then you need more public funding and you need to be less ambitious in your plans.” A less ambitious children's museum without corporate exhibits could be even more creative, she thinks, “instead of something commercialized and ordinary.” Harper believes more and more people are fed up with seeing corporate logos all over public spaces. If that's true, your children's museum will be attracting attention for years to come!
“Our culture has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that, beyond parents, the top responsibility for fostering children's imaginations now lies with corporations, not communities,” says James MacKinnon, who monitors advertising aimed at kids for Adbusters magazine.
The nonprofit Association of Youth Museums (AYM)-- the industry's largest trade group with 200 member museums, including Miami's -- has yet to develop guidelines on corporate sponsorship. But it might have to soon. “It's an issue that every museum needs to look at and have tremendous clarity about,” comments Lou Casagrande, is president of the association and director of the 90-year-old Boston Children's Museum.“It's not something that we should back into. It should be something we should be very clearly deciding on.” He thinks exhibits like Publix and Bank of America's planned by the Miami Children's Museum would be controversial in Boston. “But that doesn't mean they're wrong,” he adds. “I think it really depends on where a community is going with the way they want to grow and [direct] their children.”
One of the ways in which the Boston Children's Museum knows where its community is going is by giving representatives of nonprofit community-service organizations a strong presence on its board of trustees. About a third of its 32 trustees are from such groups. “They help us stay focused on the mission,” says Casagrande.