Commerce or culture? Why the experience economy can be a curse and a blessing for the contemporary museum

Term Paper, 2013

18 Pages, Grade: 7.5



1. Introduction

2. Approach

3. Context
3.1 The museum's original purpose
3.2 Pine and Gilmore's theory of the Experience Economy

4. Why the experience economy's theory can be both a curse and a blessing for the contemporary museum
4.1 Why it can be a blessing
4.2 Why it can be a curse
4.4 Entertaining or educating, commerce or culture?

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Standing on the top of a bridge, under you nothing but the rough bottom, your body only attached by a rubber cord and some ankles. One small step forward directly followed by 50 meters of free fall until the end of the cord. Bungee jumping: that must be a real experience! Taking a look at the contemporary leisure industry one can only see a growing and prospering landscape: video games, Disney World, Geocaching, Water Jetpack and so on and so forth. But what about museums? Are these on a par with the above mentioned leisure activities? Is the experience you can have in a museum a similar one you can have when doing bungee jumping from a bridge? Or should it be a similar one? Nevertheless, the example shows that the contemporary museum is facing a strong environment of competitive leisure activities that promise thrilling experiences. The more new technologies and other sources of distraction come into existence, the more the museum has to find itself a way to be furthermore an attractive place for people where they spend their free time. A lot of public museums have to find themselves an audience which will be its grant for governmental subsidies. These are the reasons that give museums the impetus to take marketing strategies to a greater extent into account.

One of these strategies is the adaption of the so called Experience Economy's theory on museums' displays. Museums try to keep pace with the demands of the 21st century leisure society which is becoming increasingly media- and attraction-driven. They started to augment their exhibitions with new technologies, special programmes and the building itself with gift shops and cafés; a controversial transformation that is hallmarked by both approval and criticism. The main issue of this research paper directly refers to that controversy and asks why the theory of the Experience Economy can be both a curse and a blessing when applied on the venues of contemporary museums. Important hereby is the fact that different kinds of museums need different approaches on how to present their collections, the content and the institution itself. Within the paper, I will mostly refer to contemporary museums of art and museums of science though other museums will also serve as examples.

At first the paper refers to its approach and which methods are used. Afterwards, it investigates about the museum's original purposes and aims. Furthermore, it will elucidate the relevant aspects of the Experience Economy's theory as it was invented by Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore in the 1990s. These two specific research fields will make up the basis for the following analysis. In here, advantages and disadvantages of applied experience economy's advices on museums' displays will be scrutinized and it will be revealed which aspects of a museum can be highlighted and which functions recede. All these questions and investigations are essential in a time of rapid changes that force curators, directors and staff to think about a museum's prospective image and about the way or strategy that is worth to follow it. In the end, the reader hopefully will be able to form an own opinion about the topic.

2. Approach

The paper is based on literature research and basically refers to the theory of the Experience Economy as it was invented by Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore. It juxtaposes the opinions of professionals that stem from both economic and cultural backgrounds to either reinforce or criticize the theory. A case study will not take place, however some examples of different studies serve to illustrate the research question.

3. Context

To find out in which respect the theory of the Experience Economy can influence a museum's display in a positive or negative way, this chapter firstly helps to understand which purposes a museum normally has to fulfil and which aspects Pine and Gilmore's Experience Economy's theory consists of.

3.1 The museum's original purpose

In its traditional sense, the museum's function is that of a collector. Objects, artefacts and/or paintings are gathered in museums to be protected, preserved and exhibited (Gilmore & Rentschler, 2002, p.2). Stephen (2007) furthermore asserts that the museum is a contributor to “civic enlargement” and “a symbol of community pride” (p.297). However, Gilmore and Rentschler (2002) point out that one of the most important functions of a museum is that of the education of society (p.4). When in former times museums were rather oriented towards objects, nowadays they focus more and more on the customers and they tend to become “public spaces where the visitor reigns” (van Alst, 2002 , p.195). As museum visits mostly take place within free time, Stephen (2007) claims that they also represent venues for relaxation, entertainment and fun (p.300). Therefore, museums serve in the name of education and have a special interest in the learning effort of visitors, while they also serve as places to meet other people, calm down and contemplate. Nevertheless, one has to take into account - and this aspect will play an essential role within the paper - that there exist different forms of museums that concentrate on different aspects of aims. Frey and Meier (2003) differentiate museums by four categories. First the content they carry, for example art or historical objects, second the size of the museum regarding space and staff, third the age and fourth the institutional form of the museum like private or public (pp.1-2). Within the paper I will concentrate on content, namely the contemporary art museum and the science museum, nevertheless, I will also use some examples of other museums.

3.2 Pine and Gilmore's theory of the Experience Economy

In this chapter only those aspects of Pine and Gilmore's Experience Economy will be mentioned that are important within the scope of the research paper. Therefore, it gives a limited perspective on the theory while completeness can not be reached.

Within their theory of the Experience Economy from the 1990s, Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore claim that after the eras of the agrarian, industrial and finally the service economy one could obviously see the trend towards a new economic era: that of the so called Experience Economy (Pine & Gilmore, 1998, p. 97). Pine and Gilmore state that “consumers unquestionably desire experiences, and [that] more and more businesses are responding by explicitly designing and promoting” those experiences (p.97).

In general, one has to see the theory of the Experience Economy as a marketing strategy which responds to the trend of consumers demanding for special experiences. Within their strategy Pine and Gilmore focus on the consumer's experience and how to improve it (Pine & Gilmore, 1999). When someone “hues an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages as in a theatrical play to engage him in a personal way” (p. 2), this is what Pine and Gilmore (1999) claim. For example by taking the whole family on a trip to Disney World it is not just for the event itself but for thinking and talking about it later on as a memorable experience (p. 13). A schema made up by Pine and Gilmore helps to explain their idea of the four different realms an experience can consist of. These are educational, escapist, esthetic and entertaining ones. Within the schema they lie between a cross which is composed of a horizontal axis with active and passive participation each on one end and a vertical axis with absorption and immersion each on one end. Within the cross one can explain the different characteristics of the realms (pp. 30-31). Thus, the educational realm requires an active participant and an experience that motivates both body and mind (p.32). The escapist realm is leading to a real immersion into the experience within which the participant is actively engaged. Pine and Gilmore for example mention cyberspace as an escapist experience (pp.33-34). Within the esthetic experience, individuals are completely immersed but can not actively influence the experience (p.35).


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Commerce or culture? Why the experience economy can be a curse and a blessing for the contemporary museum
Maastricht University
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Bachelor of Arts Anna-Theresa Lienhardt (Author), 2013, Commerce or culture? Why the experience economy can be a curse and a blessing for the contemporary museum, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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