This is the end

Maurice Davies, 02.10.2012
Are permanent displays becoming obsolete?
I'm perturbed by permanent displays.

For most museums they've always been the main way that they engage with audiences and showcase their collections. Since the 18th and 19th centuries the dominant way of communicating has been to put key things from the collection on show, in displays that tend to last a decade, or even a generation.

I used to think that if a museum got its permanent displays right, it couldn't fail to engage with a wide audience. But recently I've been getting nagging doubts about how well-suited permanent displays are to a 21st century museum audience.


Should museums be focusing less on permanent displays by 2020?

Of course, some museums' permanent displays do have a lasting appeal. If you have a lot of one-off tourist visitors, or deeply committed specialist visitors, then it's clearly possible to create permanent displays that will be well used. But I'm not so sure they attract repeat visits by non-specialist audiences.

Often new displays, expensively refurbished with lottery funds, attract large numbers for the first year or two – but then numbers tend to tail off. This suggests that many of the people who came in the first year or two simply don't feel the displays make it worth their while to come back regularly.

This is different to, say, a public park, a shopping centre, a theatre, or even a public library. People tend to visit these sorts of places again and again, long-term.

I started thinking about the relevance of permanent displays a few months ago, while I was working on Museums 2020.

The Museums 2020 discussion paper suggests that increasingly museums will have "more of a focus on programmes, events and ways of working and perhaps less emphasis on the hardware of museums - stores, refurbished buildings and permanent displays".

Museums will need to be more and more flexible to respond to public interests. Museums 2020 observes that "after a decade and a half of lottery-fuelled reinstallations of permanent galleries, people are beginning to recognise there are limitations to that approach".

This theme was picked up by Museums Journal editor Sharon Heal in a recent blog. It's explored in more depth in a feature by Rob Sharp in the current issue.

Away from the Museums Association, I'm involved in a project that looks at the findings of museum evaluation. The results of this project aren't available yet, but initial reading of a whole range of evaluations suggest that many visitors do not engage at all closely with permanent displays.

There is evidence for this in the low amounts of time that visitors on average spend in each permanent gallery, the low levels of attention paid to panels and in many visitors' inability to identify the carefully crafted key messages of many permanent galleries.

There are of course exceptions, with some visitors spending a long time in some galleries and paying close attention - but in permanent galleries these committed visitors are usually in the minority. (In temporary exhibitions, incidentally, the picture is very different. Visitors tend to stay for much longer, read a higher proportion of wall texts and look at more objects.)

Might permanent displays be becoming obsolete? Would museums attract a wider range of visitors more often if they offered more spaces where things change more often (like a theatre) - and spaces which visitors could use in a greater variety of ways (like a park or a library)?

Do use the comments box below to let me know what you think - and respond to the questions on the subject in the Museums 2020 consultation.