When "The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy" exhibit opened in the beginning of June, it shattered opening-weekend attendance records at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Visitors from as far away as Los Angeles came dressed in full Rings regalia and stood in line for hours before the museum doors opened, playing medieval instruments and swapping chain-mail tips.
"It was amazing to see people get so excited about an exhibit," says Erin Blatzer with the science museum.
Cultural institutions across the United States are drawing crowds as they open exhibits featuring the likes of "The Lord of the Rings," Princess Diana, and "Star Wars."
But some wonder, as they stroll among the characters, costumes, and movie memorabilia, how is this museum material?
And while no one talks of a wholesale shift from highbrow to pop culture, more museums are using the kitsch and cachet of contemporary phenomena to help balance the books and bring in younger crowds. While these shows can be interesting and well done, they are often peripheral to a museum's mission, say experts.
"Exhibitions like these are like ... a rich, gooey, delicious dessert," says Susan Delson, editor in chief of Museums Magazine. " 'Lord of the Rings' is terrific fun, something the whole city can enjoy. And it can raise the museum's profile and bring in a lot of people who might not otherwise visit. But you have to ask, 'Is this what museums are really about?' "
Museums are, by definition, research institutions, she says. They are the custodians of cultural heritage and a large part of their job is to research and display their own collections. "It's not always the fun and sexy part, but it is essential."
Ms. Delson says that when people are drawn to museums only for spectacles like "Lord of the Rings" or "Diana," museums' real work and value gets lost, and more "serious" shows - the kind that only museums can organize - may suffer. "It's like eating dessert all the time," she says.
Ever since the 1976 US premier of "Treasures of Tutankhamun" at the National Gallery of Art brought in more than 835,000 visitors, museums have known that blockbuster exhibitions can be an enormous help in paying the bills.
Now they are finding the same is true with pop-culture exhibitions, says Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. "Revenue has become the driving force for many museums."
That's in part because of a strong recent push to improve and expand museum facilities, adding to the financial stress of maintaining them, says Dr. Katz. "So museums have been relying more and more on anything that is of greater public appeal to bring people through the turnstiles."
To help defray costs, they have tried everything from renting out museum space for private events to adding restaurants and expanding museum shops.
While the importance of ticket revenues varies tremendously among museums, most are eager for ways to draw crowds, says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). "The question then becomes, 'What is appropriate?' I don't know of a museum that doesn't wrestle with that question."
Currently at the MFAH, for example, is "Baseball as America," the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's traveling exhibition. "It has nothing to do with art," says Mr. Marzio, "but I asked myself, 'Would Houston be better off if the baseball show doesn't come?' The answer was no."
Because it was such a stretch for the MFAH, he says, it was imperative that the show not be an income earner. There are no special ticket prices and most children get in free. "We'll probably lose money on it, but I see it as more of a service to the city."
Ticket prices can tell a lot about an exhibit's intent, says Marzio. "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," whose four-city, two-year US tour opens Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, costs, is $30 per adult on weekends - more than double the typical entrance fee.
The show was put together by Arts and Exhibitions International, a for-profit company that created "Diana: A Celebration," which is coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science on October 21.
Many experts believe that prepackaged, entertainment-heavy shows point up the larger problem of the outsourcing of exhibition curating and the loss of creative control to commercial enterprises.
Museums have long partnered with for-profit entities, such as sponsors and vendors. But until recently, "there has always been a firewall around the artistic and creative enterprise of the museum," says Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and now a consultant. "So it's a pretty big leap ... to give for-profit entities carte blanche" on an exhibition.
Museums not only risk their tax-exempt status when they show an exhibition that could just as well be seen at a convention center or mall, says Mr. Anderson - they also risk state and federal authorities getting involved. "We are jeopardizing a system that makes us the envy of the world."