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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. If you add up the attendance of every major league sporting event for an entire year, the combined total will be about 140 million people. That number is dwarfed by annual museum attendance. In the U.S., more than 800 million people visit museums each year. Museums are a big business, and they have big challenges, including money, leadership, ethical questions about their collections, and efforts to keep up with an increasingly tech-savvy audience. Today we're kicking off a series about the 21st century museum, and in order to understand the challenges of this century, Bob Mondello gets us started with a look back.

BOB MONDELLO: You remember your first time, right? You were just a kid.

(Soundbite of museum)

Unidentified Woman: What are some of the things we are not allowed to do in a museum? Yes.

MONDELLO: And whether it was a place with weirdly angled walls or cool marble halls, like here at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, grand spaces or crammed cabinets, naked statues or skeletal dinosaurs, that first visit to a museum was a wonder.

(Soundbite of kids talking)

Mr. FORD BELL (Head, American Association of Museums): Museums are often thought of as nice amenities.

MONDELLO: Ford Bell, head of the American Association of Museums.

Mr. BELL: People don't think about museums as being a critical piece in our educational infrastructure in this country. Going to a zoo can have a tremendous impact on a child in terms of his or her understanding conservation. Museums are very much a part of the community, but that role is not well understood and hasn't been well publicized.

MONDELLO: But not for lack of trying. From the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles to Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, the directors of the nation's more than 17,000 museums are delighted to make what their institutions do sound important.

(Soundbite of movie "Night of the Museum")

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS: (As Dr. McPhee) Do you know what museum means?

MONDELLO: Well, some of them anyone.

(Soundbite of movie "Night of the Museum")

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Dr. McPhee) It doesn't mean, oh, daddy, there's a big tyrannosaurus thing, don't touch his leg. No!

MONDELLO: No, it doesn't. That's Ricky Gervais in the movie "Night at the Museum," a film premised on the notion that, while museums strike most people as boring, they're actually filled with really cool stuff. Judging from museum attendance, people already knew that, and the heads of real museums, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello, for instance, have no trouble saying why.

Mr. PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO (Former Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art): A museum is the memory of mankind as it preserves pieces of history.

MONDELLO: Mankind has been intent on preserving those pieces throughout history. The ancient Greeks coined the term mouseion when they first built a temple to the muses, spritely goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences. And the Greeks filled their temples with both sculpture and scholars which was copied in the kingly treasure houses that followed, spoils of war displayed in the halls of royal palaces and the cages of royal zoos. With no kings on this side of the Atlantic, our early collectors were motivated by a different impulse. Again, Ford Bell.

Mr. BELL: In the U.S., we had a new continent we were exploring and opening up and discovering. And that brought this realization of all the tremendously diverse life forms that were out there, and also the interest in the history and being able to document that and preserve it. Charles Wilson Peale's Cabinet of Curiosities in Philadelphia was built around some of those curiosities that were new to this continent.

MONDELLO: Charles Wilson Peale was both a painter and a collector. And when he opened one of America's first museums in 1786, he filled it with his own portraits of George Washington, and later with bones he unearthed of a North American woolly mammoth. Meanwhile, other museums were springing up in private homes, and in the inns of any town where someone might believe a sign saying, George Washington slept here. There was more than a little more humbug in a lot of this, and when Peale's collection and others were bought up in the 1840s by a guy named Phineas T. Barnum, he added showmanship.

(Soundbite of circus music)

MONDELLO: In the era before photography, when a painting of the Grand Canyon could draw block-long lines, P.T. Barnum took the static curiosities in the collections he'd acquired and added live curiosities - industrious fleas, a hippo that he told audiences was the great behemoth of the Scriptures, and assorted bearded ladies.

Mr. STEPHEN ASMA (Historian; Author, "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads"): The earliest museums really were just, for lack of a better term, they were kind of freak shows.

MONDELLO: Historian Stephen Asma, author of the book "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads."

Mr. ASMA: The bizarre was collected together with sober specimens in no real order or organization. But there wasn't really the scientific agenda that curators have today.

MONDELLO: That agenda wasn't being entirely neglected, even back then. At about the time Barnum was turning his museums into circuses, a somewhat startled U.S. Congress was dealing with an unexpected bequest from an Englishman named James Smithson. His will asked for the establishment of a Smithsonian Institution for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge. Congress hired a scientist to run the place. And, rather than displaying objects, he commissioned experiments and hired explorers. The Smithsonian's chief interest: scholarship. And Bell says you can still feel the tension between that approach and Barnum's brand of entertainment in today's museums.

Mr. BELL: The natural history museum that I was involved with in Minneapolis has several times over the years brought out their curiosities, their two-headed calves, and their eight-legged frogs, and all these things. And people break down the doors to see those. They do it over and over again because they're tremendously popular. But the difference today is that they can combine that by talking about genetic abnormalities and how chemicals in the environment cause these genetic transformations that result in these strange-looking creatures. We couldn't talk about that in the past. You saw the animals stuffed, but you didn't see the rest of the story.

MONDELLO: The tools for telling the rest of story have themselves gotten more entertaining, everything from child exploratoriums to cyber museums on the Web to science writ large on giant IMAX screens.

(Soundbite of IMAX movie)

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN: …estimate the sizes of the earth and the moon, and the distances between them…

MONDELLO: Technology is a useful tool, but like almost everything associated with museums, it presents financial challenges. Museums have a fortune invested in buildings and high-maintenance collections. And they have a clientele that expects to see those collections either for free, or at a very low cost. Now, add to that, they need to have a really killer Web sites because, as it turns out, the virtual museum they create there actually drives people to the physical museum.

Mr. KEVIN GUILFOILE (Museum of Online Museums): I mean I don't think there's any substitute to going to a museum and looking at a Chagall.

MONDELLO: Kevin Guilfoile of the online Museum of Online Museums.

Mr. GUILFOILE: Some things just inherently, aesthetically, you need to be in the presence of them - that it's a different kind of transforming experience. Other things I don't - it's not necessary.

MONDELLO: Which may be why museums are luring visitors these days to all sorts of festive events in buildings that look like giant glass guitars and block-long wads of crumpled titanium. Exotic structures with undulating walls that can be hard to hang art on, but they come alive with concerts, wine tastings, and outreach efforts that can make a night at the museum pretty lively of late.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

MONDELLO: Popularity notwithstanding, American museums face a host of other challenges. Appropriating antiquities from archaeological sites is now illegal, but what about the already-looted loot sitting in exhibits? Philanthropy in a declining economy is increasingly tricky, as is keeping artifacts safe while still letting the public get close enough to see them. And Ford Bell says the public does want to get close.

Mr. BELL: When I took my son to see the U505 submarine at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry that I saw as a child many times, we got inside the submarine and he looked around. The first thing he said was, is this the real submarine? He doesn't want to stand in a fake submarine, and he does not want to stand on a fake battlefield. He wants to stand on the battlefield where there are bullets and blood under the ground, where people fought and died.

MONDELLO: The sort of thing, in short, that Hollywood can only approximate, which it will do again in a few months in "Night at the Museum 2: Battle at the Smithsonian." And if any purists bridle at the film's premise that what these institutions really need is more special effects, they can take comfort in a simple fact. Even if the new movie is the biggest hit of 2009, even if, in fact, it tops "Titanic" at the box-office, "Night at the Museum 2" will still be visited by fewer people next year than will American museums. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of song "Night at the Museum")

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