Any discussion of innovation in museums invariably mentions the Brooklyn Museum. From being a pioneer in maintaining populist shows such as “Star Wars”, to developing a photography show curated online by the public (see previous blog), we who work in this sector are always attentive of what they will come up with next.
So it is particularly disappointing to read in the New York Times this innovation has not transfered into visitor numbers. From 585,000 in 1998, numbers dropped to 420,000 in 2008 and 340,000 last year. And this is in an environment when the visitor numbers for most other New York cultural institutions are remaining stable.
So what is Brooklyn doing wrong, or more to the point what are the others doing right to keep the visitors coming? Over in Manhattan at the Met under its new director Thomas P. Campbell there is, according to the Financial Times, a “decidedly frisky feel”. Recent Met adverts show couples kissing in front of a Rodin sculpture, three grinning children in front of a gallery of Egyptian mummies, beside their friend wrapped in toilet paper, both with the catchline “It’s time we Met”.
This is all part of what Campbell identifies as two movements that are changing the workings of museums by: (a) shifting the focus from connoisseurship to greater socio-political contextualisation; and (b) no longer only speaking to an elite upper middle class. Both run the danger of dumbing down the museum, more often defined as “popularising”. I have no problem with either movement if it does achieve in making collections more accessible, just so long as behind it all there remains the appropriate curatorial rigour.
And if you want to see what accessibility can really mean go no further than Japan where booming attendances reflect the perception among young people that visiting museums is cool.
The four most well attended institutions in the world last year were all in Japan. The ‘National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kofuki-ji’ exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum attracted an astonishing 15,960 visitors per day. Rest assured hardly anyone could see anything but that is bye the bye - by contrast visitors to the recent NGA Masters from Paris exhibition complained they could not see anything on days when there were under a third of this number. Overall visitor attendance to national museums in Japan has risen by 200% in 10 years.
Japan’s museum sector requires a study in its own right to understand what is going on, though clearly the concept of museums as meeting places where it is cool to hang out is one of their achievements. All museums should aspire to this as a fundamental starting place to maximise repeat visitation. I noted in my previous blog that MOMA in New York has 135,000 members. On the basis that each of these members has joined because they will visit the Museum more than twice a year (thus justifying the cost of membership) visitation is already guaranteed at over 270,000.
So I think one of Brooklyn Museum’s problems is that a 2008 survey showed half of the museum’s visitors were not only non repeat visitors, they were first time visitors. When your overall visitor numbers are rising that’s not a bad result, but when they are falling as dramatically as theirs are, it’s disastrous, unless you can convince a substantial proportion to come back again.
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