Tag Archives: museums in the 21st century

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.

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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.

Museums in the 21st Century

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Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

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Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.

 

Eating in Museums and Art Galleries

Apart from the The Southern Museum of Food and Beverage in New Orleans and the Australian Museum in Sydney, you don’t hear of many museums which allow food and drink into exhibition spaces.

Call me old fashioned but I don’t like to see people eating and drinking as they wander around the museum – it isn’t really good practice, particularly when there are touch screens and objects on display which will be handled by thousands of hands. I guess when museum staff are so brainwashed about the correct procedures for caring for collections, it is not helpful having mixed messages within the museum or art gallery space.

I’m not saying that visitors should have to buy food from the Museum Cafe, but surely most large museums  have appropriate designated spaces set up for visitors to eat (preferably near a handwashing facility or bathroom) which can accommodate families and ensure that objects in the galleries have greater protection and  longevity.

In addition, there are risks and/or  OH and S concerns around having food near the objects. Some examples that come to mind are:

  • The risk of spills and wet patches being hazardous to other visitors or damaging electronic equipment or  the objects on display.
  • Consider the risk of a visitor bringing peanuts/or peanut butter sandwiches (or any allergen) into the gallery space triggering an anaphylactic reaction in an “at risk” visitor who touches the same screen or object.
  • The diminished aesthetic value of the museum space when rubbish generated by visitors is left behind in the galleries.
  • The implications for pest management in the galleries which is already an issue in many museums.

A quick Google search of websites of some of the most popular museums in the US and UK shows most have stated clearly that  “no food or drink” can be taken into the museum. To assist visitors, museum websites should clearly state their policy on eating and drinking in the museum. This can be reinforced by front of house staff as visitors arrive. It’s important to make things easy for visitors – telling them about onsite cafes and nearby food outlets and pointing out the designated eating areas onsite which do not include the galleries themselves.