Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are Museums becoming the new churches – the place to meet?

I have blogged recently about falling visitor numbers at museums as a worldwide trend, and the opportunity for approaching the use of museum buildings in a different way (Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it? ), so I was particularly interested to read an article in the Times last week by Hugo Rifkind on this issue (How we learnt to dumb up and chill out).

Rifkind looked at those UK museums where visitor numbers were NOT falling (Liverpool museums - up 400% during 2008 whilst it was EU’s Capital of Culture-, the British Museum and Museum of Childhood), and found a number of theories to explain it:

1) People are using museums as secular public spaces (the new churches), where they can meet to pursue like interests . They have become places that are as much about activities as collections. The importance of providing good cafes and restaurants has now become paramount to provide a reason to return, whether it is to view a special exhibition, attend an event, or be part of a club or group that meets regularly there. This all about affinity groups wanting to use the space because they feel attracted to it (in just the same way as historic house museums have the potential to be used).

2) People are wanting more challenging entertainment – the ‘dumbing up’ theory. Rifkind quotes Neil MacGregor, boss man at the British Museum, in saying that ‘there is a huge desire to understand and to address complexity, and to spend the time to do so”. It is not true, MacGregor says, that we live in an era of dropping attention spans. Not sure I agree with this one – if the current crop of TV programs is anything it go by, we are inexorably seeing dumbing down rather than up.

3) Free entry and recessionary times means more people are taking advantage of museums as places of entertainment. Free entry has a side benefit of providing people with a sense of ownership. I think this explains why even in recessionary times whenever there is an appeal for the purchase of some major artwork about to be lost overseas, invariably in the UK the monies are raised. The public feels that part of the public cultural collection is at risk, and is prepared to chip in.

I find this stuff fascinating, and more to the point critical in understanding how we can continue to increase visitation.

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