Roger Highfield (L) Ernst Vegelin (R)

Head to head

Roger Highfield; Ernst Vegelin, Issue 112/04, p21, 01.04.2012
Are increased visitor figures ruining the audience experience?
Roger Highfield is the director of external affairs at the National Museum of Science and Industry and Ernst Vegelin is the head of the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Dear Ernst:

At the Science Museum last year we had over 2.9 million visitors – our highest annual total since current records began in 1992. But visitor numbers are not the only measure of success. It’s all about widening the experience for visitors to keep them engaged.

Our Lates evenings now reach over 4,500 adults each time and we are reaching new audiences with our programme of exhibitions. To show the true extent to which ideas and objects in our collections are changing culture, we now use different channels, attractions and timings.

Roger

Dear Roger:

The steep rise in museum attendance has been a striking phenomenon. At the Courtauld Gallery this has meant in an increase in visitor numbers of 125% since 2004. The museum sector should feel proud of its success but it is also our responsibility to evaluate the experience that we offer our audiences, which forms the basis of this success.

This experience can take many forms but at its heart is the integrity of the visitors’ encounter with the displays. Overcrowding can certainly diminish this and museums must continue to develop solutions which preserve and enhance this relationship.

Ernst

Dear Ernst:

The Science Museum puts a huge amount of effort into understanding our visitors but they are only one (albeit very important) slice of our audience. We also feel a great responsibility to the community and inspiring the next generation: our outreach programme is bigger than any other, reaching 124,000 children every year.

We also have a touring science show, which goes to 53 venues around the UK. And there’s our digital offer too; almost 6 million visits to our website. By growing our digital audience, we can make the museum a resource for tens of millions of people worldwide.

Roger

Dear Roger:

Museums should evolve and should embrace new audiences and new ways to reach them but at their heart they are mostly still real places with real things. The many visitors to our current Mondrian exhibition have come for the shared experience of the original works in a public setting; their physical presence, size, surface and how they relate to one another.

Museums were built on the potential of individuals to learn about the world, about themselves, about common traditions or other cultures and this curiosity is still most richly rewarded through direct experience of the displays.

Ernst

Dear Ernst:

The experience of our visitors can be physical and virtual, and tailored to quite different kinds of audience. Our Writer in Residence, forthcoming digital installation with the Philharmonia and the Hockney iPad movie portrait of Stephen Hawking can help reach a different audience to our Making of the Modern World gallery.

The heart of the modern museum is changing. We have to think as carefully about how to curate our digital content as we do when picking the most inspiring selection of our 220,000 objects for visitors to enjoy.

Roger

Dear Roger:

Museums must embrace change. At its best this is driven not by providing pre-determined content but by new visitors asking new questions – questions which speak to their experiences and their curiosity about the world. Digital provision is vital but the encounter with real objects cannot easily be replicated.

The unique qualities of museums and the foundations of their phenomenal success rest substantially on visitors’ experiences of real objects and ideas in a shared public space. We should have confidence in the attention with which audiences engage with museum displays and build on this through the many means at our disposal.

Ernst

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