Do admission prices stop museums from growing audiences?

After doing a ticket pricing survey for Front of House at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2016, I started researching articles about the benefits of free entry to museums and art galleries compared with charging admission and whether or not this does impact on visitor numbers. Interestingly, many articles reported that it made no difference and that people who valued the museum experience came with or without an entry charge. Even with free entry, there was a debate about whether new visitors would start coming and if the number of new visitors increased as a proportion of the total number of visitors on an annual basis. As I was digesting the information, I came across Colleen Dilenschneider’s article Admission Price is not a Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation.

Dilenschneider says that cultural institutions need to get real about the barriers to visitation and the excuses which organisations make without really knowing their audiences. Critical thinking, visitor surveying and feedback and the analysis of current audiences would go a long way towards understanding the real reasons that people don’t visit cultural institutions. She believes that admission pricing is not the main barrier and that using that excuse stops these organisations from identifying the true barriers to increasing numbers and diversifying their audiences and which may include the presentation of content to interpret their collections, site accessibility for visitors and the relevance of a cultural  institution to the general public rather than its current targeted membership audience.

In saying that, Dilenschneider says that organisations still need to:

  • Be competitive in their pricing relevant to other cultural institutions and nearby attractions
  • Have specific events or sessions for low income visitors where entry is free or more affordable
  • Understand that cultural organisations compete with other recreational activities for “time poor”  and “financially stretched” visitors – particularly families
  • Realise that some people just aren’t interested in visiting cultural organisations no matter how you present to them, and that’s OK.

When Michelle Obama spoke at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York,  she said that for many cultural groups in the community, museums are places that they do not feel welcomed and do not see themselves in. Considering that 9% of core visitors to museums in the US fall into “the minority group” category, that is largely out of balance with the 28% found in the general population. I think that Michelle Obama’s comments would apply to minority groups in cultural institutions anywhere in the world. I wrote earlier about the role of Museums in the 21st Century and the fact that they need to find a “connectedness” to people by championing human rights and social justice issues in their exhibitions. Since these issues often relate to “minority groups”, it would be a great avenue for people to start new conversations and make emotional connections to a cultural institution while exploring its collections which suddenly seem more relevant.

In her article Why Free Museums Matter, Jessica Leigh Hester wrote about Museum Day in the US, where 1200 museums allowed free entry to pre-booked visitors (and a guest) in order to engage different visitors to the museum and shed the reputation that only certain visitors are allowed in the rarified atmosphere of a museum. She explained that Museum Day is part of an ongoing campaign to chip away at the negative perception “that visitors must be a certain type of person” or have “a certain level of education or expert knowledge” in order to gain entry to an art gallery or museum. 

In the UK, the Museums Association reported on all the changes brought about by the Government in the eighties to cut funding to museums which meant that some museums could no longer support their free entry policies. In 2001 when funding was reinstated for National Museums in England, Scotland and Wales, the numbers of visitors increased with a hope that different kinds of groups would visit. Data analysis showed that there were more people visiting (or repeat visiting) but that they had the same profile as those that had previously been paying to visit the same cultural institution. MA commented that “It takes imaginative programming and marketing to change an audience profile significantly, as well as sustained development work with communities with no tradition of museum visiting.”

One of my favourite examples of museums increasing the diversity of their audiences is IKON Gallery in Birmingham, UK who began their Black Country Voyages Project in 2014, taking art to young people in the UK Midlands via a canal boat on the Black Country waterways which were used to transport mined coal and other minerals in years gone by. The project aims to build relationships with young people who have previously had no relationship with the Gallery, thus building  their audience using both the outreach method as well as running inclusive Family Programmes at the IKON Gallery itself.

I’m not sure why some people value museums and others don’t but I am sure that if children can connect to museums and art galleries from an early age, then it is a really good way to encourage lifelong learning and feeling good in the museum space as they get older. Something that really heartens me is that so many museums (even those short on funding and resources) have School Programs, Early Learning Programs and Family Programs in place. When I chat to people in the museum space, many adults have come back with children who visited on a school excursion, begged to be taken back and are now proudly showing their parents/carers around. I often see people with prams, kids doing art classes, vacation care groups inside the museum, which was definitely not the case when I was growing up or when I tried to visit some cultural institutions when my own kids were small.

Kids activity sheets, interactive stations and audio tours for exhibitions are springing up everywhere. Kids invigilators, teacher guides and child focussed volunteers can really make a visit something to remember. These kinds of activities should be affordable for all socio-economic groups. I understand that not everything can be free because staffing and materials for children’s activities can be quite expensive but there should definitely be a focus on price for this sector if cultural institutions want to attract a different kind of visitor.

Another reason to focus on this sector is that I’ve identified a shift in visitation for the “apartment dwelling” family particularly in the inner city of Sydney – close to some of the major cultural institutions. Many parents/carers are bringing younger children into the museum on a weekly or fortnightly basis since there is no room at home. In the  near future, it won’t be sufficient to run just school holiday or weekend activities. Next generation visitors will need access to space which offers new and different things to see and engage with on a regular basis. There are all kinds of possibilities for such a space – from the typical dress ups and books, to collection access, to craft activities or age appropriate digital engagement areas. These repeat visitors would gain great value from a museum membership but if museums don’t deliver and make people feel welcome then they will be looking for a new places to go with their children.

Maps versus Staff on the Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

A Tale of Two Dairies

One weekend, two heritage sites. Both The Dairy Precinct and the Yaralla Estate lie along the Parramatta River in Sydney, and I knew nothing about the history of either property before my weekend visit. Strangely there are some similarities in the way that both sites came into existence, but in 2016 there is little connection in the funding, management or the way each site is interpreted for the visitor, apart from the fact that both offer occasional guided tours.

The Dairy Precinct is an area north of  Old Government House in the centre of Parramatta Park containing both the Rangers and Dairy Cottages and overlooking the Parramatta River. It is managed in accordance with the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 and Parramatta Park Regulation 2012.

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The Dairy Precinct, Parramatta Park

The Dairy Cottage was home to George Salter, an ex-convict turned cattleman who constructed the cottage in 1796, on his 30 acre grant. It was converted to a dairy after its purchase by Governor Macquarie c1813 to provide milk for Old Government House and the Female Factory. Macquarie added a sunken dairy processing room in an extension beside the cottage. A cow house and barn were also added to the original building.

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The Dairy Cottage

The $1.7 million upgrade to the site has stabilised, conserved and enhanced the Dairy Precinct to improve the interpretation and understanding of the area as part of the greater Parramatta Park cultural landscape.

The new interpretation works really well for this small site and pays tribute to the Indigenous and Colonial Australian history of the site as well as orienting the visitor to the role that this site played in the early days of the colony in NSW.

During the recent “Day at the Dairy”,  Parramatta Park Trust ran short half hour tours of the cottages. A longer tour option would be even more worthwhile because there is plenty to learn about the site. On the open day, the tour and the new interpretation were a perfect introduction to the site.

 

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The second open day that I attended was at the Yaralla Estate, further down Parramatta River at Concord. Yaralla is of course much more than a dairy, but like the The Dairy Precinct at Parramatta, Yaralla began as a small land grant to a freed convict in 1797. Isaac Nichols not only grew food for the colony, but became Australia’s first postmaster.

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The Walker family home at Yaralla

Eventually, debt ridden, Yaralla became part of the Walker family story until the death of Dame Eadith Walker in 1937. The property then became vested in the Crown under the Walker Trusts Act in 1938 and remains the largest community bequest of its kind to survive intact in NSW. The City of Canada Bay Heritage Society holds two major fundraising events at Yaralla each year and one at Rivendell, another property which is  part of the estate, to raise funds for the continued restoration and to research the history of several outer buildings and gardens on the property.

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Our guide Karina walked us through the estate armed with lots of narrative. We covered the original Nicholl’s cottage, the Dairy, the Coach house and Stables, the rose garden, the sunken garden, and then moved down to the river where the boathouse and wharf, swimming pool and grotto and the Powerhouse once stood. We then viewed the exterior of the Yaralla homestead (designed by Edmund Blackett and modified by John Sulman) rising above its Italianate terrace where there were originally croquet lawns and a tennis court. Our last stop was the Squash Court built for Prince Edward’s unofficial visit with Louis Mountbatten in 1920. The story goes that the court was never used because the floor was made of concrete rather than the timber flooring necessary in these types of courts. It is great that the volunteer guides know their history and are good storytellers since so much of the estate has already been destroyed in the name of progress or through vandalism and there is currently very little interpretation apart from some historic photographs and memorabilia on display  in the Coach house and Squash court.

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The Yaralla story is fascinating and the life of Dame Eadith would be a perfect plot for a movie. Born in 1861, Eadith  lost her mother in 1870 and was raised by her aunt, Joanna, in a shared childhood with Annie Masefield (her companion and friend for life). She inherited Yaralla from her father, Thomas Walker, and made significant alterations to the estate. She was active in Sydney Rowing Club and the Animal Protection Society of NSW and was patron of the Yaralla Cricket Club and leased land to Royal Sydney and Concord Golf Clubs. She made a considerable contribution to several charities and to the Great War effort in both a physical and monetary sense. She was also very involved in supporting her own staff at Yaralla even after their retirement from the Estate. A woman well ahead of her time. The heritage society has produced a lot of information about the Walker family,  and the history of the site itself. There are books and guides available through the Canada Bay Heritage Society website.

I guess my purpose for writing today’s blog was that I was struck by the similarities and contrasts between the two sites. The Dairy Precinct seems well managed and well funded by The Parramatta Park Trust while Yaralla needs more funding and support in the future. Yaralla does not enjoy the same profile in the community nor the funding that Parramatta Park receives.

Today, we are more connected than ever to our Australian Indigenous and Colonial heritage and Yaralla has suffered some significant losses through not having its significance acknowledged. NSW Health has done a great job restoring the old house (which is currently in use as a Dementia hospital) and the grounds are neat but there needs to be greater support to bring the Yaralla estate to the standard of Parramatta Park with its public recreation areas and heritage buildings. I couldn’t help thinking how great Yaralla estate would be as a public park in the ever increasing concrete jungle springing up around Parramatta and along the river bank.

Archaeology – subdivision and the loss of historical context

Over time, Australia’s amazing indigenous, maritime and cultural heritage is being uncovered via numerous archaeological investigations, many of which pre-date The Heritage Act 1977. I was amazed when I visited an Open Day in Parramatta for the Centenary Square development to see the incredible history which lay under the Post Office and surrounds in Macquarie Street. Strangely, although this site had been built on in the interim, there was a large amount of archaeological evidence still visible from the earliest times such as the footings of pre-existing colonial buildings and a variety of everyday objects uncovered by  Casey and Lowe’s meticulous dig. I wondered whether we had lost the context for the earliest land use of the site because it had already been disturbed? I guess that the most recent dig will be the last opportunity to research Parramatta’s past from the Centenary Square site because once the underground car park has been excavated – the existing layers of history in the substrate will be lost.

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That isn’t really why I was writing the blog post. The point I was actually thinking about after my Centenary Square visit was that if we continue to subdivide Parramatta and other parts of urban Australia into tiny blocks (which seems inevitable), then what happens to the layers underneath? If the colonial subdivisions are double, triple or quadruple the size of the modern land holdings, what will happen to the archaeological material and the context of where that material is located below the surface? The size of indigenous Australian history layer will be even greater. If an archaeological survey is required by  a developer before an underground car park is excavated, are we only getting part of the story from the archaeological report? Are we looking at half a house, quarter of a hotel or a miniscule portion of a larger landholding such as market gardens, farm, factory or place of indigenous significance? Considering that the layers of earth below the surface can reveal so much about our past  and that suburbs like Parramatta are a significant part of the history of Australia, I really hope that some very important person with vision or the Office of Heritage and Environment or local council responsible has all this in hand before the evidence and context is destroyed for all time.

P.S. After I posted this I noticed some posts by @gmlheritage on Instagram showing items from the archaeological dig of 200 George Street, Sydney, reinterpreted for use in the foyer of Mirvac’s new headquarters. Great to see the objects used along with some explanatory text about the site’s history supported by a wonderful artwork by Judy Watson on display in the public foyer instead of being archived in boxes and stored out of sight.