Sizing Up the Competition

Last month, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Sponsored Museums Performance Indicators 2015/16’. It reported that visits to the 15 DCMS-funded museums, mostly London-based with some located in other parts of the country, have dropped for the first time in a decade. There were 1.4 million fewer visits this year compared with last year – 47.6 million, down from 49 million –  and it was tourists who were staying away. Surprisingly, overseas visitors made up about 47% of audiences to these museums, which Arts Professional reports as down from 49% in 2014/15. Arts Professional also makes the point that visits to the UK by overseas residents actually went up and were 5.1% higher in 2015 than the previous year. What all this adds up to is more people visiting the UK, and fewer of them visiting UK museums. So if they aren’t coming to us, where are they going?

It seems museums are facing some stiff competition for audiences. This would be consistent with anecdotal evidence I heard in the US. Museum staff in both Indianapolis and Denver spoke about the sector having to look beyond just other museums. We have to better understand how people choose to spend their leisure time and take into consideration the broad range of other available options. And it’s not just us having to do this; the power of social media has strong-armed many public-facing organisations into raising their customer experience game. A bad review on TripAdvisor or a pointed complaint on Twitter are seen by the world, making them far more effective tools for change than a letter to the director. Similarly, a glowing review on facebook or a positive photo on Instagram are marketing gold-dust. We have all become little emperors with mobile phones, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down as the mood takes us. In this climate, museums are looking to other types of venue for inspiration, and they are looking right back at us and doing the same.

For example, there is a great cafe in Cambridge called Stir. It has excellent coffee, lots of varied and comfortable seating, tasty food, friendly staff, lovely tiled walls, and large windows to watch the world go by. All of these elements come together to create a relaxed and welcoming ambience. On the back wall in the main room is a large blackboard; it’s covered with a calendar of activities, including weekly, morning, drop-in art workshops for young children. Now, if I had a toddler and was looking for a low-fi bit of creative entertainment that would suit the needs of both my child and me, I could potentially chose between a kids’ workshop at a local museum or a local cafe. The former has the advantage of original artworks, the latter has coffee and sofas. Museum staff might presume the lure of original artworks would trump all alternatives, but if I’d only had four hours’ sleep the night before and had been watching Igglepiggle on a loop since 5.30am, my money would be on coffee and sofas.

Places like Stir are the competition for museums looking to broaden the scope of their audiences. Increasingly, cafes are picking up museum tricks (like kids’ workshops) and museums are picking up cafe tricks (like coffee and sofas – although not near the artworks). Museums are also borrowing from cinemas, gardens, theatres, and bars to create new museum experiences and attract audiences who like those kinds of social offers. As the line between different forms of leisure activity blurs, it can be harder to distinguish the USP (unique selling point) of museums. Libraries have already gone through this process of reinvention. Books are now just one aspect of the library offer, which can include cafes, creches, job centres, and ubiquitous yoga classes. At Biggin Hill, the library was knocked down and replaced by a library and swimming pool on the same site. If such things are possible, I look forward to the first museum-jacuzzi experience.

With so much change in the air, I suspect museums are going through a bit of an identity crisis. We haven’t fully shaken off the ‘dry n dusty’ reputation of our past, and we haven’t fully embraced the ‘down with the kids’ potential of our venues either. Instead, we seem to be going through that awkward teenage phase, sometimes reverting back to what we were and sometimes reaching forward to what we might become. I see examples of incredible, innovative museum practice and think ‘at last!’, but then it only takes a couple of retrograde meetings to realise, ‘ah, maybe not quite yet’.

All of this competition also affects learning programming. Museums are just one of many places that an adult audiences can go for an interesting talk and a glass of wine, or that families can bring their children for an afternoon outing. How can we continue to set ourselves apart from the crowd and convince audiences that we are the best use of their free time? An obvious strength is our collections, exhibitions, and venues. Well, ‘obvious’ only if we make these assets relevant to audiences. Nina Simon’s latest book The Art of Relevance argues that this is a fundamental aspect of audience development.

Personally, I’m a fan of immersive experiences (taking a leaf out of theatre’s book) and anything multisensory or cross-disciplinary that draws on music, dance and performance – Punchdrunk’s work with the National Maritime Museum set the bar pretty high with their installation, Against Captain’s Orders in 2015. Having said that, I’m also keen on quiet, stripped-back experiences where visitors are encouraged to stop, be still and ponder. For example, the National Gallery runs programmes that invite participants to sit in silence and look at a single painting for five minutes. Called ‘Looking without Talking’, the sessions originated in 2013 to support the Vermeer and Music exhibition. The structure of these sessions has also been repeated under different titles, such as ‘Drawing Mindfully’ and ‘Draw Breath’. Similarly, The Photographers’ Gallery has a small gallery space devoted to just one image and encourages visitors to spend time with it and share their responses. I like these different approaches because they are creating experiences that feel special. Those who participate get to do something outside of the everyday and enjoy a sense of wonder – surely that is a competitive advantage.

Image: All About Eve (1950) https://mubi.com/films/all-about-eve

 

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