Sunday, February 7, 2010

What Happened to Postcards?

I spent much of yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a singularly exhausting experience -- as most museum visits are. (Being a combination of exhilaration and stultification at the same time.)

But what particularly struck me was when we visited the gift store before leaving (I can't resist tacky souvenirs) and there were no postcards for sale.

Yes, they had one small rack of postcards of Egyptian paraphernalia, capitalizing on their current special exhibit of an Egyptian tomb and children's fascination with mummies. (Egypt is to art museums what dinosaurs are to science museums.) There was also a book of postcards depicting paintings by Monet. But there were no small mementos for sale of the individual works that may have struck a chord during your visit.

At first I was confused. But then it occurred to me that there may be a very practical reason why postcards are missing: no one sends physical mail anymore.

Now, this is just supposition. There are a number of different reasons why they may no longer sell postcards: too expensive to produce, take up too much space, need to constantly change stock to keep up with what is on display at any given time... But these conditions are either identical to what they were 20 years ago or easily offset by inflating prices (as they do with the trivets, posters, T-shirts, and other items that are on display).

So I can only assume the market for postcards has itself diminished because people do not send physical mail anymore. Statistics from the US postal service verify this, indicating that personal correspondence via USPS decreased 14% between 2002 and 2008. And the drop off is expected to continue.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that postcards play a role beyond just souvenirs and something to write "wish you were here" on. Postcards, especially postcards from places like museums and zoos that have many different exhibits, serve as mnemonic devices. These mnemonics remind us of the strong emotional experience of seeing the painting, sculpture or whatever. They also act as a surrogate of that experience that we share with those we send the postcards to.

People do not send as much mail because email and other electronic media have replaced the need for physical letters and cards. (As well as being easier, cheaper, and more convenient.) In place of postcards, I could have taken pictures of the paintings I wanted to remember -- which I did in a few instances. But the lighting in museums is hardly conducive to photography. (In some cases, it doesn't even seem very conducive to viewing!)

So what should be done? As much as I enjoy postcards, I recognize it is not practical to argue a return to a form of gifting that never was very practical and is now downright archaic. But it would be a loss to the patrons -- and to the museum -- if there were no form of mnemonic to help visitors retain and relive the pleasure of seeing the art in first person.

If it is not financially viable to stock physical postcards, perhaps they can make it possible to send electronic postcards or custom "picture books" of one's favorite works, whether to yourself or to your friends?

But, surprise surprise. They almost do...

The museum has an searchable online catalog of many of its holdings. The catalog has an expansive advanced search capability. It even lets you send e-cards once you find a specific item. (Yes!)

However, the catalog is only available if you are on the internet, not in the museum itself. (No!) Add to that, the catalog is really designed for those who understand how the catalog works, not the casual user. (For example, the search interface has 12 fields. Enter "Egypt" under culture and search for items on display and nothing shows up. Search for "Egypt" as a keyword and 58 pages of results are returned.)

What would be great would be if there were monitors in each room that let you browse the items available in that room. (No painful searching.) You could select an item and send an e-card in seconds when it strikes you, rather than spending minutes (or more) searching for it later.

Better still, for those with smart phones you could provide a simplified interface that only asks for the asset or accession number. (The accession number appears on the bottom of the placard describing each work of art.)

(Example placard with the accession # 72.2617)

The visitor could quickly call up an item they liked and send e-cards to others or a reminder to themselves on the spot. They could even create an e-book of their favorite works as they proceed through the collection.

In an ideal world, the MFA could put 2D barcodes on the placards so the information could be scanned and retrieved automatically by cellphone. This would be the easiest method technically. However, it would require changes to museum itself (the placards) and a common interface on cell phones -- something available in Japan but still not standard in the US yet.

So sticking with the first two suggestions -- and especially the suggestion for a simplified search available on smart phones -- it would be possible for the MFA to provide a thoroughly innovative and satisfying way for visitors to remember and share their experience with very little change to the existing infrastructure.

Why should the MFA bother? Although this sort of addition would have a cost associated with it, much of the technology already exists in the electronic catalog. Simply by creating a targeted interface -- and promoting the new capability - the museum can deepen the experience for the patron as well as advertise its best qualities through the messages the patrons send.

The word "souvenir" comes from the French for the act of remembering. Postcards are both a souvenir in the sense of a mnemonic device and a vehicle of communication. Their loss may seem minor from a commercial perspective, but they served as a valuable thread connecting the museum experience (quiet, austere, contemplative) with the visitor's regular life (loud, jumbled, exciting and excitable). A thread by which we carry the experience of art from previous generations back into our lives.

Without it, the day at the museum is just that: a day at the museum. But museums have the opportunity to create an even stronger link, electronically. It will be interesting to see if they pick up the challenge.

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