Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Crossing over into commercial exhibitions

An article in The Age on 5 April 2010, Big Bucks and the Boy King,  looks at the trend towards mega-blockbusters and raises some interesting questions.

The article is framed around the Tutankhamun exhibition that will open at the Melbourne Museum on Friday.

Image from a Tutankamon exhibition in Spain

The article points to recent exhibitions such as Salvidor Dali, Titanic, Masterpieces from Musee D'orsey, and Pompeii to reflect on a trend towards mega-blockbusters.

Naturally, the article raises the quantity versus quality topic, with questions about the quality of the viewing experience in exhibitions that are very busy. I think that this is not a major issue when  museums/galleries are careful to limit the number of people in the exhibition at any time. The similar inconvenience of long queues can be addressed by time-based ticketing.

Part of the article supports the 'small is good' cause by profiling some small-scale experiences in both galleries and performing arts. Of course, this doesn't deny that big can be fabulous too.

Another concern is that several of these mega-exhibitions have been toured by commercial enterprises without roots in the museum industry. Some appear to have a life of their own as touring museums. The artefacts in Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, have never been in a museum and the exhibition is likely to tour for years. The road it its home and the host museum is just a venue. Naturally, this rubs a bit on local professionals who look for opportunities to shape and research their own exhibitions.

I was particularly interested to see the article refer to a seminar presented last November at Deakin University titled ''More than people through the door: Engaging audiences'' where Professor Jennifer Radbourne, dean of the faculty of arts and education, noted in her introduction that ''the artistic directors and general managers we have spoken to know a lot about their audience demographics - the gender, age, postcode, other subscriber habits of the people who attend their shows - but strangely little about what they are getting out of the experience.''

I was pleased to think of the various research projects I have been involved in where we have spent time understanding what people are getting out of the experience of visiting an exhibition. Still, it is true that keeping the full richness of the visitor experience at the centre of exhibition planning is quite a challenge.

It would be good to hear from those of you at Melbourne Museum on the topics raised in The Age. I'm sure you have some interesting perspectives!

Posted by Gillian Savage

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