Handling a culture shock

With the introduction of free admission, visitor numbers at museums and galleries are soaring. Trish Lorenz asks what are the implications for design

<b>Increasing visitor numbers </b>
Venue increase
All Government-sponsored institutions 62%
Regional museums 45%
Victoria & Albert Museum 157%
Science Museum 82%
National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside 67%
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry 66%

Increasing visitor numbers

It seems museums and galleries are the new places to be seen. The Tate galleries have ‘officially’ been voted as one of Britain’s coolest brands, according to a survey released last week by Superbrands.

And the Government has recently claimed its policy of free entry to museums and galleries has resulted in a ‘spectacularly successful’ rise in admissions. Visits to Government-sponsored institutions are up 62 per cent, which means 2.7 million more people going to Britain’s 23 free venues.

This increase in admission is good news for designers, as the demand for well-designed exhibitions will no doubt continue to grow. But the policy of free admissions requires a change in thinking for exhibition design. Free admission is changing the way visitors use facilities at museums and galleries. Are the profile and types of customers who visit also changing? And what are the design considerations this brings?

Event Communications director Cel Phelan says the design of museums and galleries today owes much to the culture of paying for admission. She contrasts the style of exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which charged for admission, to that of the British Museum, which has always been free.

‘Those museums that did charge have been through a sea change [in design]. They have had to become more outward looking, partly because they had to generate and satisfy paying customers,’ she says.

The most practical issue that now needs to be addressed is the sheer volume of visitors. The Victoria & Albert Museum has seen a 157 per cent increase in visitor numbers since admission charges were scrapped. Casson Mann director Roger Mann, who is working on the V&A spring 2003 Art Deco exhibition, says this volume of visitors has to be taken into account at a practical level.

‘Logically we have to leave more room for people,’ he says. ‘Legibility can also be an issue with crowds. So for the Art Deco exhibition we’ll be looking at point sizes and position of graphics.’

Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins says free access has broadened the way visitors use museums.

‘Some people come for shorter trips and come back more often, but at the same time [museums] get four-hour coach parties who only ever visit once,’ he explains.

Mann agrees. He cites the example of London venues where city residents will ‘pop in’ for a brief visit, but tourists will ‘do’ a gallery or museum in its entirety.

‘On big shows you need to be able to do chunks of it at a time. We recognised that at the V&A there are various points of entry and you can also leave at different points,’ says Mann.

A spokeswoman for the V&A says navigation is key. The V&A’s future plans, released earlier this year, focus on the layout of the museum and improving navigation (DW 23 May).

‘We’ve recognised there is a circulation problem as we get more visitors. As part of the future plan we are appointing a signage specialist to improve navigation and are making the layout of the museum more like a city with four quarters,’ she explains.

Phelan thinks the solution to shorter visits is to devise a series of tours that act as ‘tasters’ for those who have less time, but still capture the ‘quintessential essence’ of the museum.

‘At Hampton Court Palace we recognised that visitors didn’t have time to see the whole collection so we devised a series of servant tours to explain different areas and tempt them back to see the rest,’ she explains.

JJA director Jasper Jacobs says museums also need to consider how to make the far-reaching spaces of the museum more accessible. He feels museums could learn the art of ‘pulling people in’ from department stores.

‘Museums need to consider the location of [key exhibits] and perhaps the introduction of more escalators to move them around more quickly,’ he says.

Jacobs thinks many visitors will spend the equivalent of the admission fee in the museum’s shops and café’s and these will also need to be upgraded to give the venue a broader appeal.

Higgins is working on exhibitions for the National Waterfront Museum Swansea, set to open in 2005, and says designing a brand new attraction has offered the consultancy the opportunity to work on a very collaborative basis with the architect Wilkinson Eyre.

He feels being involved at the ‘front end’ of business planning is the solution to many of the challenges designers may face, enabling exhibition design to be integrated into the broader remit of the venue.

‘The museum is a destination, but the commercial extension is a bigger destination. By collaborating with the architect we’ve been able to have strategic and business level input early on,’ he says.

All designers agree that exhibitions need to be accessible to everyone and that this has always been a requirement of successful design. But the sheer number of visitors viewing collections, combined with the 21st century habit of ‘bite size’ absorption of information, means exhibition designers in future will need to consider an ever broader spectrum of issues to ensure museums and galleries are attractive to the widest possible audience.

<b>Increasing visitor numbers </b>
Venue increase
All Government-sponsored institutions 62%
Regional museums 45%
Victoria & Albert Museum 157%
Science Museum 82%
National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside 67%
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry 66%

Increasing visitor numbers

Latest articles