Last weekend I read Vanessa Thorpe’s article about gallery rage and felt compelled to respond to the piece from the point of view of a museum professional.
The press can be our very best friends in helping us promote our blockbuster exhibitions, improving advanced ticket sales, sustaining that momentum with reviews and helping us maintain our standing in the public’s eyes through ongoing features. However I feel that pieces like this serve to encourage negative responses from our audiences and visitors, and here’s why:
1. The piece does not make reference to the current funding situation for the cultural sector.
We, as the rest of the public sector, have recently suffered significant funding cuts. Our funding and indeed business models sustained under the previous government are no longer relevant. The coalition is pushing for philanthropy – a model which works well in the US but has rarely been employed to any great degree in the UK. Many of us are starting from scratch – boosting membership schemes by offering more benefits, broadening our portfolio of donors and sponsors and encouraging donations on site. To keep us afloat in these difficult times we are challenging ourselves by pushing “blockbuster exhibitions”, generating revenue which will keep our doors open and allow our non income generating activities (community engagement, informal education and to name a small slice) to continue. As Jonathan Holmes says in his article:
"we can be fairly sure that there are only two ways of funding art on any scale: direct income through public attendance and subsidy. Anything else is hot air."
This is precisely what exhibitions like Gauguin are trying to do, to maximise funding for the gallery and its operation. Of course it serves multiple purposes (advocacy for the brand, partnerships through the curation of the exhibition etc), but this is a major consideration in the promotion of the exhibition.
2. The piece does not encourage its readers and visitors to the exhibition to provide constructive solutions to the problem.
The piece is editorial, and therefore a factual account of the subject matter. However there is no single tangible reference to how other museums and galleries have countered problems of overcrowding, only a mention of the Cezanne exhibition at the Courtauld with no examples of how it managed visitor flow better. It does not serve to inspire the reader to lobby the Tate with their feedback on how the space could have managed the volume of visitors better.
3. The piece does not reference the time and resources museums and galleries put into researching our visitor patterns and trends.
The cultural sector today is driven by data. From audience demographics to local infrastructure capability to web metrics. We ensure that when we are planning a new exhibition certain things are taken into account and researched to the best of our ability:
• Way finding: How visitors are likely to move throughout the space, informing duration and design of the gallery
• Dwell time: How long visitors are likely to spend in the space, taking into account particular hot spots where audiences may dwell longer due to detailed interpretation or “hero object” items of significant interest (the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, Nelson’s Uniform at the National Maritime Museum)
• Visitor figures: Not only do we repeatedly analyse our own figures throughout the year but we share data and talk openly and frequently about figures for different types of exhibitions
We are dedicated to understanding our audiences so that we can provide the best experience possible for them, in person or online. We do not always have the scale of resources available to the commercial sector, but by working collaboratively within the sector we can intelligently predict the impact of large-scale exhibitions such as Gauguin. Sometimes the public respond in an incredible way to a new show that we could have never predicted, buying tickets in their droves. However, for all the data available we cannot accurately predict human behaviour, and how visitors will interact and connect with our collections. But be assured, we do try.
We whole heartedly encourage comment and debate from the public – it is the most powerful tool for ensuring that we present art to the world in the most accessible way possible. As we have seen from numerous visitors to the exhibition, something went wrong in managing audiences, meaning they could not appreciate the art on display due to overcrowding. No doubt Tate are already reviewing their current systems for ticketed exhibitions, analysing what could have been done better and how this will be implemented in future events. That is what we do. We are publicly accountable and never more so than in the 21st century with the advent of social media and digital communications, where individuals thoughts are broadcast internationally 24-7.
The Tate are one of the foremost organisations in the world for encouraging dialogue through these channels, so take advantage of them. But before you do please have an informed argument. UK art organisations are here for the public but we are not free to do as we wish in all matters. Help us to bring our exhibitions, collections and programmes to you in a meaningful, relevant and valuable way using the funds, skills and resources that we have.
Emma McLean is the Digital Marketing Officer at the National Maritime Museum, which includes the Royal Observatory Greenwich and The Queen’s House.