Managing museum crowds

July 30 2014

Image of Managing museum crowds

Picture: NYT

There's an interesting article by Rachel Donadio in The New York Times on how some of the world's leading museums are coping with the rapid and seemingly unstoppable rise in museum attendance:

It is the height of summer, and millions of visitors are flocking to the Louvre — the busiest art museum in the world, with 9.3 million visitors last year — and to other great museums across Europe. Every year the numbers grow as new middle classes emerge, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe. Last summer the British Museum had record attendance, and for 2013 as a whole it had 6.7 million visitors, making it the world’s second-most-visited art museum, according to The Art Newspaper. Attendance at the Uffizi in Florence for the first half of the year is up almost 5 percent over last year.

Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

In recent years, museums have started doing more to manage the crowds. Most offer timed tickets. Others are extending their hours. To protect the art, some are putting in new air-conditioning systems. Still, some critics say that they’re not doing enough.

Visitors to the National Gallery in London will know that weekdays resemble out-of-control school creches, as teachers and tour guides dump their charges unsupervised for a few hours respite. This is of course a side effect of unrestricted free access; there's little incentive to employ the time wisely.

Meanwhile, the Louvre (says The Art Newspaper) is forecasting an increase in visitor numbers of up to 30% by 2025, to 12 million a year, and the French government, in response, is advocating 7 day opening. About time too. (Seperately, the Louvre seems to be blighted by an increase in rats, at least in the gardens.)

Another institution trying to do something about overcrowding is the Frick, which recently announced what I thought were commendable plans to construct an extension to the site, providing more library space and, crucially, a seperate exhibition space. For major exhibitions, the Frick currently has to un-hang large parts of the permanent collection. But, perhaps predictably, the scheme was met with cries of 'Save the Frick!' from those who would rather make the place a time capsule rather than a functioning museum.

Personally, I'd like to see museums open later in the evenings as a matter of course. Otherwise, for those who work, there's hardly ever any time to visit, and anyway I'm not sure why the visual arts have to be an exclusively daytime activity. Happily, the National Portrait Gallery in London helpfully stays open till 9pm on both Thursdays and Fridays. The National Gallery is open till pm on Fridays, but I suspect that's when many people are going out or away, and I preferred it when it was open late on Wednesdays. Tate has 'Late at Tate' once a month, but insists on making the evenings 'events', with the next one promising:

A programme of live art, performance, installations and workshops [to] explore the youth experience and the space it occupies between social structures and cultural boundaries.

Whatever that means.

Update - a reader writes:

Yes Bendor  Friday is the day when many  of us are going out or away - we are going to London.

Friday evening is a good time for opening if you live in the north of England - Wednesday is about the worst.

I would have to take 2 days holiday allocation for a midweek evening visit to the london galleries.

Perhaps one long term answer to overcrowding would be to disperse the national collections around the country.

They are after all national not london ones.

A somewhat daft proposition, and I say that as a resident of Edinburgh.

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