I did an Instagram poll to gauge interest in the topic of interrogating why museum exhibitions are only three months long and it turns out that a lot of people have a lot of opinions. For the most part, museum people seem to be not in favor of the standard 8-12 week exhibition period, yet it certainly is the standard. In regards to creating a more welcoming environment for both the avatar of the “typical” museum go-er and the more casual museum visitor alike, longer exhibitions would certainly be more accessible. In regards to creating a more welcoming work environment for museum professionals, longer exhibitions would be less taxing on human resources. In terms of local and word-of-mouth visitation that benefits museum membership, longer exhibitions seem like a great idea. So why are they elusive, and what could we change about our exhibition schedules?
I’m speaking primarily to the way art museums handle exhibitions today because that’s what I have first hand experience with. Let’s start by outlining why it would be better to have longer exhibitions for those readers who have never thought about this before. I recently had this revelation myself in the car on the way to a museum, upon realizing a show I had hoped to see had closed a month before. That sounds like poor planning on my part, but the thing is, people only have the leisure time that they have.
I’m not here to take things away from the retired folks – they deserve nice things! So, who are museum audiences, and what do their visit patterns actually reveal about what would be most welcoming? If you’re a #museumnerd you might be familiar with Know Your Own Bone, which has a veritable hoard information on this topic. If you’re curious about visitor trends for cultural institutions, this is a must-subscribe newsletter. I’d love to go off on a tangent here about how museum audiences will never be diversified until we have 15 hour work weeks and UBI, but it’s a bit nebulous for the argument at hand. In the real world, most visitors do not revisit the same cultural organization more than once per year or even once per year. Note that we’re not referencing most “people” – but most “museum visitors.” That means, people who categorize themselves as the museum audience. So, this is our existing audience we’re talking about not those we wish we could ensnare. Dilenschneider notes in other articles that the pandemic has driven more local visitation of cultural institutions over planning cross-country trips, so that has altered this data a bit, but generally, most visitors don’t go to the same museum multiple times a year. Here’s some of the most important data analysis we can remember in culture work: “The preference to stay home has grown over 20% in the last seven years.” (Throwback to my visitor patterns won’t change until people work less argument…)
Indeed, a goal is to get people to come back more often! But don’t take long visitation cycles as proof that your organization is necessarily subpar. Instead, consider it an opportunity to better understand the fiercely competitive, personalized, and noisy environment in which we increasingly live. Use it as a catalyst to adapt to a changing world.How Often Do People Really Revisit Cultural Organizations?
So, why would it be more welcoming to extend the length of exhibitions, if many visitors aren’t going to visit more frequently anyway? Well – they might! Or they might more easily be able to pass along the info to a friend who will still have time to visit! The museum I work at recently had the same exhibit on view for nearly seven months. There was a local connection to the exhibit, which surely boosted visitation, but within that stretch of time, there were more and more possibilities for people to spread the word about the show via word of mouth. I don’t work in marketing, but my casual observations from working in museums for years now tell me that word of mouth is more meaningful than any amount of paid ads. Unless you have the advertising budget of the immersive Van Gogh experience. A longer exhibition run time gives your audience more of an opportunity to bring their friends, and that deepens their connection to your institution, and helps them to feel more welcome!
Back to the point about people only having the leisure time they have. Plenty of folks don’t have a free weekend or day off within a three month period to go out of their way to visit an exhibition that peaks their interest. Plenty of folks don’t have this at any time during the year, but that brings me back to the UBI argument. Maybe I should just get into it? Ok no I’ll just leave this here. This is literally my livelihood and still I often see an exhibition advertised, see the closing date, and fully give up on even attempting to make plans to see it. I know we just talked about competing with visitors’ couches, but there’s also familial obligations, extra long work weeks and weekend work, part-time jobs, child care, elder care, friend obligations, meal prep, house cleaning, doing your taxes…it’s all about prioritization, but a small window of opportunity can make you feel defeated before you even begin to try. Plus, especially post-Covid, my tolerance for crowds is reduced, so if I can only do something at peak time on a weekend, I’m even less likely to do it.
Ok, but what about the audiences that DO visit the museum frequently? Surely the most frequent visitors deserve that we cater towards them, rather than those who only come through every other year regardless of what’s on the walls? I work quite a bit with caregivers and their preschool age children. This is a visitor subset that does visit the museum quite frequently, sometimes monthly, certainly more than once per year. This visitor subset is also a perfect counterpoint to the argument, “we have to keep things fresh for our regular visitors!” This is far from the target audience for most art museums’ special exhibitions.
Ok, but what about scholarship and advancing ideas and representing a wide swath of the history of art? Well. If you’re catering to the members that you expect to show up for your exhibitions no matter what they are, and you aren’t conducting audience research to attempt to get a broader swath of visitors to see the shows, then what’s really driving this argument? Most museums don’t produce catalogues for every show, which means it gets put up, it performs however it performs, and then it comes down, and whoever saw it, saw it. If a museum cranks out a dozen well-organized and progressively thoughtful exhibitions a year in a forest, does anyone hear them?
Ok but also, who cares? Isn’t this a nitpicky issue? It could be shorter. Commercial galleries only have shows up for a month at a time. Why does it matter?
It matters because museum staff are burned the eff out. With a hyper-focus on a rigorous, fast-paced exhibition schedule, there isn’t much time to invest in the stuff that sustains our practices. For example, if your education department is training museum guides on a new exhibit every two months, when are you working on foundations with your guides? When are you practicing the new methodologies for that tricky age group that you picked up at a recent conference? Preparatory and installation staff are often up in my DMs whenever I talk about being frustrated by hierarchy or by a non-stop workload. When are your prep staff supposed to develop best practices if they are literally hanging artwork or building mounts every single day? Or for that matter, take a vacation? A sick day?
It matters because of the age-old, “who are we doing it for?” That’s been discussed a bit above, but let’s also bring it back to being inclusive and welcoming to people who have been historically marginalized as museum visitors. Inclusive curation takes a lot of time. Involving more voices, whoever those voices may be, increases your timeline. Suddenly you need to begin working on an exhibition 18 months in advance, rather than 6-9 months, in order to reach out to your accessibility or diversity consultants, make sure that they are available to collaborate, read them into the concept for the exhibition, set up regular meetings, and manage the project with external stakeholders. All of this is great and it’s the way curation should play out now to achieve the DEAI and decolonial goals museums have set since summer 2020 (or before). But it takes time, and it takes the curatorial team’s time away from other projects…like….for example, the other exhibitions that you are focusing on for that year. This inevitably will end up requiring either more staff, or to cut back somewhere else in the exhibit schedule. And if the resultant exhibition is only going up for 10 weeks – this is the real crux of the matter, isn’t it? How do we justify spending all of that time working with culturally specific consultants for a 10 week show?
Dilenschneider also has a great article relevant to this topic, Death by Curation, in which she argues exactly what most of us fighting for equity in the museum field are arguing: it’s the people that make the museum every bit as much as the objects. (Thousands of dead white scholars just rolled over in their graves, I know.) “Instead of relying on the rotation of expensive exhibits, many successful museums instead invest in their frontline people and provide them with the tools to facilitate interactions that dramatically improve the visitor experience.”
Ok BUT, I thought the whole thing about museums is that they used to be static and now they’re trying to be dynamic? Is there no way to win? Why are Know Your Own Bone and Museum Drip haters? We don’t need no hateration in this danceree!
Dilenschneider notes in this article, as I will here, too, “[t]his isn’t to say that new content and engaging exhibits are not critical to a museum’s success.” Of COURSE dynamic, engaging and sumptuous special exhibitions are critical to a museum’s success and ultimately, learning about and interpreting new exhibitions is in the top 3 favorite parts of my job. Also, this would be a big paradigm shift that would necessitate thought leaders making a collaborative effort. Because of standards for loans, one museum can’t make this type of shift all by their lonesome. There’s so much more I could say on the individual points that have been made here, but the topic today was “interrogating,” not “fixing,” so we’ll leave it at that for now. I’m not suggesting that art museums do a single special exhibition annually and keep everything else static. What I am suggesting, backed by Dilenschneider’s data and the lived experience of museum professionals, is that we probe and interrogate how important it is to constantly change what’s on the walls, vs how important it is to invest in an experience that makes the museum a place you want to return to over and over.