You-Know-Who Versus Harry Potter

Kriston on December 12, 2005

Apparently Blake Gopnik's no fan of Harry Potter. Washington Post art critic takes the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to task for screening Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at its Imax theater.

First things first, Air and Space didn't spend $15 million upgrading the Imax theater in order to show the latest Potter flick, as might be construed from Gopnik's lede. But the point he raises is important: Where does a museum draw the bottom line between its educational mission and financial interests? While Potter fans might say that the Firebolt represents an aeronautical leap over its predecessor, the Nimbus 2001, Blake is right to say this film is a moneymaker, not an educator. On the other hand, the Imax is somewhat removed from the museum floor, and the movie will certainly draw visitors and residents into the main gallery, which they might not visit otherwise. And the fact is, the screening is a low cost–high profit draw, perhaps not unlike the National Gallery's famed gelato station.

Gopnik continues with some funny illustrations about how other Smithsonian museums might cash in their cachet, including American Art:

The Smithsonian American Art Museum: It's across the street from MCI Center. Fill it with Jumbotrons to take spillover crowds from Wizards games and Marilyn Manson concerts. That's real American art for you.

At the very least, we Washingtonians might be able to get a better look at the troubled 'Zards. I often get the impression that they're not pulling down the boards, but look at the numbers from their overtime loss to Miami: Jamison for 11 rebounds, Walker and Haywood for a combined 13, Butler for 10. Respectable, right? But it's less clear from the floor that Arenas's 24-point showing amounts to a less-than-stellar performance, almost entirely attributable to free throws (he shot 5 for 24 from the field). Maybe some giant TV screens in American Art would make the kinks in Washington's game a little clearer?

Of course, I'm straying off topic and being facetious. (About the Jumbotrons, not our team's problems.) This year saw an exhaustive degree of attention paid to museum programming that aimed to bring in the largest possible audience, potentially at the expense of more tasteful exhibitions. More often than not I find myself sympathizing with the purist's "my way or the highway" demands, but realistically, revenue-generating draws are necessary to defray the less commercially appealing shows. Everyone knows this, too, but there's never much discussion about tolerable compromises.

Air and Space's decision is a "no-brainer" because it brings in money, but it also introduces (and reacquaints) visitors to the permanent collection and main exhibitions. What's your call: fair or foul?