Feb 2008 Special Report - Close the Museum Doors!

Well, not literally close the museum doors just yet, but some thoughts about where museums are losing competitive ground, the nature of museum doors in the 21C, how to prevent museum doors from closing for good, and how museums can attract new visitors.

Some people are already making useful comments about museums for example at Museum Connect and Museum 2.0 and The Museum Detective - Blog and Museum Blogging but the following are some personal thoughts from a collecting and art history point of view.

Traditionally, museum doors were large and designed to impress visiting foot traffic, but there is now a need to recognise and serve Internet visitors. This concept merits discussion on web-based "doorway" access to museum exhibits.

I believe that museums which ignore Internet visitors over the next ten years will be left behind, with increasing numbers of small museums needing to close their doors. In recent years there are frequent references to small museums closing and selling their entire collections, as they can no longer attract sufficient visitors to justify their continued existence.

For reasons that are not obvious, many museums adopt a citadel type approach to defend themselves from Internet visitors. Their websites appear as expensive productions, much like blockbuster movie advertisements.

They have high and impressive "walls", sometimes voices and music, fluttering flags and banners, but usually only a tiny portcullis type entry, more like a barred hatch in the door to a nunnery titled "Contact us", with an impersonal message box often limited to 500 characters, no help desk, no email addresses for staff so as to preclude online questions, and no, or poor site online search facilities, all of which act to discourage, if not bar, online visitors who are trying to view specific objects from the museum collection.

Museums need to remind themselves they are competing with many different corporations for the public's attention. Most corporations serving the public have comprehensive online and call centre help facilities to attract and retain customers. The fastest growing area for many corporations is online.

As an indication of how rapidly the world is changing in related fields, see an interesting Feb 2008 article at Hammer Time - artnet Magazine This features the Leslie Hindman auction house in Chicago. Traditionally, all potential buyers attended an antique auction, but in her new $3.5m facility she has deliberately kept the number of seats in the auction room to only 100. "Eighty percent of what we sell is outside Illinois," Hindman explains. "It’s an international, global market, not a local market. If it’s a Hungarian painting we’re offering, it sells to someone in Hungary. Recently we had a consignment of a piece from Czechoslovakia, and we had people bidding from Bratislava."

This is a good example of the international hunger for online buying and related research, and its impact on traditional thinking. Implicit in it is that 80% of bidders regard the quality of online information as containing sufficient detail to spend thousands of dollars. If Hindman restricted bidding to ambulatory traffic only, her business would stagnate, if not fail.

Museums face a similar choice in deciding their market focus.

Online Search Facilities
Museums need to look to the future. In previous posts I have criticised the slow response times of museum websites and their poorly designed online search facilities. For example at View I criticised the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston saying; " I have concluded MFA has one of the poorest online self-help search facilities of any museum I have viewed. There are only six available sort categories; Accession number, Artist, Cat. raissone, Culture, Has image, and Title

Thus it seems to be a typical art museum search system, designed for use by MFA staff. That is to say, a system that assumes a researcher knows the exact portrait they want to see, e.g. by accession number or title, and then finds it. Thus the six sort categories are pretty hopeless for any non MFA researcher to use to browse as an aid in making attributions.

There are no clear example instructions for searching and the system is quite slow, although not the slowest I have found. Every attempt I made to cull the list of 1041 portraits down to American oil portraits failed. I kept coming back to a list of 1041 portraits under one or other of the six sort categories, including portraits from all over the world."

I was so surprised at this I thought I must be doing something wrong and so contacted the MFA webmaster asking how I could cull the 1041 portraits down to just American oil portraits, as I was trying to attribute this portrait of Harriet Josephine Turner (1834-?) and painted in Boston in 1838, to a specific artist.

The MFA was kind enough to reply, but the reply did not help as the relevant part read; "Also, we want to mention that at this time the Museum does not have the capability of culling all the American oil portraits".

Now, given the recent publicity below about my local museum, I feel I ought to be constructive and make some suggestions which could help keep all museums relevant in the 21C.

"Trouble at Mill"
Over recent days my local museum has been making the headlines, although not over funding. Many museums have funding issues, but the current publicity does not focus on this aspect. The new director is from Los Angeles and is currently undertaking an "organisational restructuring".

As would be expected, there is much nervousness among the 150 staff members, although the director has not made public any detailed plans for the museum.

The key issues raised by the director are probably relevant to museums all over the world.
- traditional institution where size, branding, and current complexity inhibit the cutting edge
- visitor and membership targets have become difficult to meet
- best practice examples have not been followed
- still using the strategies of over a decade ago
- a need to increase its relevance to an increasingly diverse population

Predictably there is a lot of local public comment, the main theme being that the museum should remain traditional. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy with tradition, but agree in principle with the new director's comment; "unless we prepare the museum culture to live in a present we only now fully understand, we run the greatest risk of all, becoming increasingly irrelevant."

Museums originated well before the advent of photographic illustrations, as the only places where the public could see examples of items they would otherwise never see. Many items were collected from around the world as curiosities. They were usually displayed out of context and often had inaccurate descriptions.

For example, there are a number of miniature portraits on display in my local museum. When I saw them I realised they are labelled with incorrect information, for example described as English, when actually French. They must have been on display with incorrect labels for over fifty years. Thus, I contacted the museum some time ago and volunteered to go in and assist them to re-catalogue the items. However, the museum has never followed up on my offer. One wonders how many other museums have items with incorrect descriptions.

Scholarship has moved on since many objects were acquired and the results of world wide research are now more readily available. A major change in thinking is that the original context of objects is now very important, for example the care taken in archaeological excavations.

The world has also changed, photography, glossy books, and the Internet are now readily available. Thus in general terms, we have gone from a 19C paucity of information, to 21C information overload.

A result of this is that higher standards of scholarship are required in the 21C and the general public is much less impressed by any unchanging museum display which includes an accumulation of possibly erroneously labelled, minor curiosities.

Education or Entertainment
Traditionally, the "Holy Grail" for measuring museum success has been foot traffic visitor numbers. Some museums have countered falling visitor numbers by building more elaborate displays and introducing interactive exhibits for children. This is a move towards entertainment as a means to attract visitors.

Local opinion is generally critical of a major museum which has gone down this path, for example describing it as;
- "a theme park about political correctness"
- "awful - a mickey mouse style museum"
- "the flashing lights and booming electronic voices have a place in the modern museum environment, but not in every single display"
- "even with the interactive exhibitions (mostly broken from unsupervised children), there is not much educational or information material beside or around the exhibits"
- "we need high-quality exhibits and exhibitions, not flashy "interactive" gimmicks that are usually a desperate attempt to get kids in no matter how much they dilute the content"

I feel the entertainment approach is misguided and museums should consider a proper definition of their purpose.

My dictionary defines museum as "a building where objects of historical, artistic, or scientific interest are exhibited and preserved". This definition dates from 1990 and hence is pre Internet.

I would like to propose a 2008 definition of a museum as "an institution involved in preserving, researching, and exhibiting objects of historical, artistic, or scientific interest."

The key changes are twofold;
- "building" becomes "institution" - so that bricks and mortar are not the prime focus for exhibiting
- "research" becomes an objective of the institution

Note that neither definition includes the word "entertain" !

Product and market for the 21C
We need to determine the nature of the museum product and its market. Essentially, the museum "product" is a group of museum quality exhibits with the proviso; "look and learn, but please preserve these exhibits by not touching".

If this is agreed to be the museum product, the "looking and learning" can be done, at least as equally as well online. Online a visitor can get closer to the exhibit, see the whole collection, read the research notes, and print a copy for private or educational research.

The number of inhouse exhibits is always limited by available display space and invariably only a small portion are ever on display at one time. Thus very little of a museum collection can be viewed by inhouse visitors.

Traditionally, the public came to a museum as visiting foot traffic, as there was no means of taking the exhibits to the public.

Thus a museum's market was limited to able-bodied people living within the local community, or tourists passing through the community. With greater use of motor vehicles, the area of each local community expands, but car parking issues often inhibit visitor numbers.

If museums are prepared to embrace 21C technology, the local community restriction can be lifted and the potential market be expanded to "any person anywhere, having the means to view exhibited objects". This expands the potential visitor market to a world wide market for visitors using the Internet.

Museums need to think about if or how they would like to interact with such a worldwide audience. Those that attempt it and manage to compete successfully on the world stage will help fulfil an aim of exhibiting objects to the maximum number of visitors.

There are many museums which I feel are failing in this respect. Despite a "high tech" website, I feel a failed example is the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. They have been running an exhibition of 246 portrait miniatures generously gifted by the descendants of Caroline A Ross in 2005 and probably with a market worth approaching $1,000,000. The exhibition is advertised at MFAH / Exhibitions / Love Tokens: Portrait Miniatures from the ... but as can be seen from following that link there is no attempt by MFAH to enable Internet viewers to see the exhibition. Only twelve tiny images can be seen on the website and it is not immediately obvious that brief details can be found by clicking on the images.

From my own research, I know how tedious it is to have to click in and out of multiple images or screens. That is why this --- Artists and Ancestors --- Miniature Portrait Art Collection is set up as a series of Galleries, each displaying around 100 images. Each full Gallery appears with one click which makes it easy to browse. Many complimentary emails have been received about this method of display. A Gallery view displaying many related items and their research details with one click, contrasts with a Thumbnail view where only the images appear and each one must be clicked individually to see the details or research notes behind it.

Descriptions held in a blog format have a great advantage for online researchers as, with miniature portraits, the names of sitters usually appear in a Google search, which will often not happen if the sitter's name is held within a museum database. This applies just as much to any other kind of fact held in a blog which is part of the Google database.

Thus, while I recognise my efforts are amateurish, the MFAH could easily have added an online gallery such as I have done in my American 1 Gallery, even without the detailed research notes. In its simplest form, MFAH could have provide online images via a Google blog format, with a hyperlink from their webpage link above. To load 100 images of the miniatures and their exhibition titles should take less than a day of data input time, say $100 and would be available as an online exhibition indefinitely, with no continuing overhead costs.

Lest there be any spluttering that it is not possible for anyone to present an online exhibition via a blog, reference can be made to simple instructions which have been set up as an example that anyone can use to display their own collection on the Internet via a blog, see Your Collection

This month, February 2008, "Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine" has published an article giving more information on the process of displaying any collection on the Internet using a blog format, see From Autographs to Zebras - Displaying Your Collection on the Internet

In contrast to the $100 cost of data entry effort for MFAH to add an exhibition of the miniatures via a blog, the cost of mounting their "live" exhibition will be much higher, at a wild guess perhaps $10,000 including labor, space, and overheads during the exhibition.

If this guess is reasonable, a 1% increase in the exhibition budget from $10,000 to $10,100 would have enabled online visits by "any person anywhere, having the means to view exhibited objects".

It therefore seems the MFAH is interested only in encouraging foot traffic and is ignoring any charter obligation to inform the public at large.

In contrast, I feel positive that Caroline A Ross would have wanted MFAH to have spent an extra $100 to allow Internet visitors to view such a valuable and generous gift, rather than it being restricted just to ambulatory residents of Houston.

This example shows MFA Houston is not making the most of its investment in website and technology, which illustrates how technology can be high tech and expensive, especially when custom built, with lots of bells and whistles, but still fail to deliver an adequate service.

I may have been a little unfair in focussing on MFAH. It was chosen as it currently has an exhibition of miniature portraits, but it did have the most recent opportunity to consider online visitors. The same situation applies to most museums. There are few museums that attempt to cater for online viewing.

If a museum is prepared to spend more money, a miniature portrait collection can be fully displayed for online visitors in the manner adopted by The Tansey Collection of Miniatures, Bomann-Museum, Celle This exhibition is in Germany, but there is an option to view it in English.

The Tansey exhibition while excellent, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from MFA Houston. Obviously there is scope for a middle ground approach to exhibiting online.

Bouquets, not brickbats
To be fair I should observe some museums are making tentative steps to service online visitors. For example Nina of Museum 2.0 has pointed out that the Library of Congress has a trial which invites the public to write tags for the LOC online collection. This will enable search engines to locate relevant images using the tags.

This reminded me that last December, the Metropolitan Museum sent me an email invitation to participate in a similar online tagging exercise of a small selection of their collection. I did so and participated by tagging with several pertinent words of my choice, a selection of art work as each image appeared in turn on my screen.

I think the aim is to determine what are the most common words used to describe each painting and then use that most used group as the permanent tags for each painting.

It was interesting to participate and quite easy to think of appropriate tags for paintings of people and landscapes. However, I found it difficult to choose (polite!) words for modern art type paintings, where is it usually very difficult to determine what a painting represents, as so many are just splodges of color.

However, the major problem with the Metropolitan exercise, which caused my enthusiasm to wane very quickly, was the slow response times from the Met when sending the images, as they only crept slowly down my screen. When one is used to Google and eBay responses, slow response times are very frustrating.

I sent the Metropolitan some feedback on this point, suggesting that they use lower quality images that would be quicker to download. It seemed to me they were transmitting their high quality file images which take time to transmit, whereas for tagging one only needs a basic low quality image. I did not receive a reply, so do not know whether they have addressed this aspect.

Niche marketing
A problem for local museums on the world stage is that they are competing with websites like the Smithsonian, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Hermitage etc.

An attempt to compete in a world market invites a frequently used buzzword phrase that makes me cringe, "world class" - usually an expression used by local politicians and developers when referring to new public buildings or stadiums that cannot be justified on a cost/benefit basis!

For a national or regional museum to try and build their own website to become "world class" and compete with the Smithsonian and others, with Google or eBay type response times, would be prohibitively expensive and could not be justified on a cost/benefit basis.

When I use the term, I prefer to think of world class in the context of a Cotswold village, as being a "world class" place to live, instead of trying to compete with New York or London.

Thus to compete for visitors, any local museum should compete by "niche marketing", with its marketing effort being directed to the following three types of visitor.

1 Traditional local community and passing through foot traffic.
2 Potential online visitors within common natural boundaries, normally the same country, who seek information to assist with local educational requirements.
3 Worldwide researchers and historians seeking specialist knowledge.

1 Traditional local community and passing through foot traffic.
This type of visitor will usually be wishing to see a broad selection of objects they have not seen before. Their interest will be visual with or without aural commentary. Context is an important consideration for them when viewing exhibits.

At my local museum, the most popular areas for foot traffic seem to be contextual exhibits, where exhibits of similar age are grouped and displayed together, such as might be seen within a single dwelling place, 19C shop, other locality, or in a diorama.

A different situation is forced upon most visitors to art museums. A great pity of the art world is the echoing galleries of paintings taken out of their contemporary context. They were painted to be viewed when surrounded by furniture, floor-coverings, lighting, and other domestic items of their time.

In my mind, to exhibit just paintings in a gallery is akin to the 19C treasure hunting archaeologists who dug for treasures to take home and destroyed the archaeological context of their excavations.

A cynic may observe that is just what my blog does, but I do make an attempt to research all the items and share the full results with any interested visitors by recreating, as far as I am able, "the archaeological context" to each sitter's life.

A few museums have attempted to remedy empty and echoing art galleries by including paintings and contemporary furniture in a single gallery. While this cannot match the effect of visiting a historic home, it is a step in the right direction. If display cabinets of smaller domestic items are added into such galleries, the context becomes even more evident.

However, even in such enlightened museums, contextual exhibits are essentially visual spectacles and have a justified element of entertainment. They represent a Reader's Digest Condensed Books version of the scholarship and research information held by the museum, as they cannot possibly include exhibition of the full research supporting each item.

For the purpose of this discussion, contextual displays can be contrasted with what I will call complimentary displays of like items, for example from an exhibition displaying varying species of toads, to an exhibit showing the development of writing implements.

The human eyes and mind can absorb an amazing amount of information, but in a museum or art gallery environment, one's body can quickly signal an overload. Thus consideration needs to be given to suggesting different tours within a museum with suggested time durations.

I remember going to museums and galleries in Athens and London expecting the awe of famous artworks to cause the earth to move under my feet. However, my sore feet soon over rode my brain.

A factor to consider with exhibits is how to encourage repeat and new visitors. To achieve this there must be regular changes in exhibits. This will be considered in more detail below.

2 Potential online visitors within common natural boundaries, normally the same country, who seek information to assist with local educational requirements.

The issue for this market sector becomes how best to communicate education and information.

One possible way would be to work with the relevant educational authority as part of a defined curriculum. For example, one could envisage a series of DVD, video, or podcast talks entitled, "The Curator and the Cabinet" with an expert curator talking in detail about objects from a particular contextual or complimentary display. Such talks would not need to be expensive productions and could include behind the scenes visits relevant to the subject. Being "low-tech" the curator could move around within a contextual display picking up items and showing close-ups in a manner not practical with foot traffic visitors, but they could also run on screens adjacent to the static displays.

It should not be difficult to have graduated depth of such recorded discussions, to suit differing school or university levels.

DVD/Video/podcast seem most the practical methods to disseminate such talks, which would allow schools or universities to include them in their own timetable or curriculum where they felt they best fitted. The information would then also be readily available to students living at such remote distances that normal museum visits were rare, if not impracticable.

If sanctioned by the relevant educational authority, a major advantage of such an approach would be a common standard of presentation across all educational establishments, with local teachers able to initiate subsequent classroom discussion and set relevant assignments.

Revisions or updates to take account of changing scholarship would become routine. This type of online access would also help disabled visitors to see a museum.

Such talks should represent potential income for a museum from the educational authority, or from local television stations willing to broadcast selected talks to a wider public. There may also be opportunities for sale overseas.

3 Worldwide research scholars and historians seeking specialist knowledge.
Although the term worldwide is used, museums should remember that the power of the Internet means that any online information is just as useful to local residents as those 12,000 miles away, and often more so, as much will tend to be locally relevant.

Prima facie this is the hardest market sector to satisfy. A museum is usually a repository for a great deal of research information. A very limited amount of this may be confidential, but most of it should be suitable for the public domain, the problem being to achieve public dissemination.

Having been accumulated by a museum over many years it is unlikely to be in a suitable form for easy dissemination. Also, the quantity of background research on any object will normally far outweigh the size of the object itself making it impractical to display the research information as part of a static exhibit within the museum.

Conversely, if it were part of a static display, it would not be available to worldwide researchers. The challenge therefore is how to impart such detailed research to interested visitors worldwide.

The power of the Internet seems to represent the best way to achieve this. An online database and search facility could record and display 100% of items held by a museum, not just the normal 5% or 10% there is usually room to exhibit within a typical museum building. In addition it would allow easy retrieval of all research relating to a particular items.

Superficially, two broad strategies seem possible ways to achieve this.
Firstly, for each museum to develop its own database and search facility that can be accessed via the Internet.
Secondly, for all museums to agree a common methodology for an online database and search facility.

Most people will share these reactions to the two possible strategies.
The first will be very expensive, be a duplication and a waste of museum resources, and lead to many failures.
The second will never happen, as the chance of reaching agreement on the format will be like getting theologians to agree how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Cutting the Gordian Knot
However, there is a way to cut through this Gordian Knot, as Alexander the Great did with a single slash of his sword.

The rapid growth of Google in recent years has proved the old adage "that knowledge is power". So much so that Microsoft is now concerned about the risk of being left behind in search engine development and is seeking to purchase Yahoo!

Google clearly recognises the importance of knowledge and has already embarked upon a programme to scan into its database a library of all books which are out of copyright.

Given their thirst for access to a worldwide knowledge base to be used with their search engines, it seems logical for either Microsoft or Google to be willing to provide a framework and computing power for a worldwide academic database which would be compatible with their corporate objectives by bringing Internet traffic to their nominated site.

This database would be held on Microsoft or Google computers, much as this blog is held. The structure would be common for all participating museums and search responses would match current Google response times.

There is an increasing tendency for information to be stored by Google. Three examples are; firstly the aforementioned library of out of copyright books, secondly the overall database which drives their main search engine, and thirdly all the information contained within personal blogs.

Thus if Google or Microsoft were to set up an "academic" database, freely available to any user, but with standard data entry formats, image capture, and a database wide search facility, the potential for independent research would be enormous. Universities are a potential source to include in the database, as are major private collections.

To give a simple example, if all art galleries participated, for each nominated artist, it should be possible to have an option to display either a Gallery view with all works and research details as mentioned above, or a Thumbnail view. For the Thumbnail view, each work could be clicked on to show an enlarged view in a separate window, with the description, the location of the artwork, and the research notes associated with that artwork.

The same technique would apply for any type of exhibition, as with the plant example shown here.

The major benefit to participating institutions would be that they would not need to develop their own inhouse database. Hence money, and more importantly time, otherwise needed for inhouse systems development could be redirected towards data entry, with data entry being logically assisted by volunteers at museums.

This would allow more funds to be used for the suggested 2008 definition of a museum; "an institution involved in preserving, researching, and exhibiting objects of historical, artistic, or scientific interest."

In such a circumstance, there may be minor sacrifices required of participating museums, for example, forgoing any copyright claims for information extracted from the database which visitors access for personal or educational research. However, the benefits should far outweigh this sacrifice.

An extra benefit of such an online academic database would be the ability to much more easily determine if an item offered to an auction house or museum was in fact an item stolen from another museum.

Ideally, a worldwide academic database would have an embedded language translation facility, similar to AltaVista - Babel Fish Translation named in part for the Tower of Babel as shown here, but more particularly for the "Babel Fish", a small fish that is placed in one's ear that allows the instantaneous translation of any language in the universe. At least that is what Douglas Adams claims in his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

Such a translation facility would allow database information for each museum to be loaded in the relevant local or regional language that suited that museum, but still accessible by the main search engine. The search engine would then convert search requests into all the various languages held in the database and produce the search results in the language of the initial search request.

No doubt the search results would be stilted in their translation from other languages, but as with Babel-Fish the gist of the information would be intelligible.

If you will forgive me for creating an acronym, the overall academic database could then logically be called "The WORLD Museum", for World Online Regional Language Database.

Even if a WORLD Museum concept does not eventuate, at least in the short term, most museums can make a better attempt to attract online visitors than they do at present. Some online visitors at least, will be inspired to make a effort to attend as foot traffic in the future.

Latest news - 1
Since my initial drafting of the above comments, there has been on Feb 20 a newspaper report that presents an opportunity for museums to be provided with just such a search engine facility as I have suggested.

The report reads;
"Microsoft plans to invest heavily in web search to compete against Google, even if it fails to acquire Yahoo, company chairman Bill Gates said yesterday. ...Google was the only company with "critical mass" in web search. Microsoft needed a bigger piece of the market to create a more competitive and profitable web search business. We can afford to make big investments in the engineering and marketing that needs to get done."
Microsoft targets Web with Yahoo or alone: Gates - Yahoo! News

Latest news - 2
On Feb 21 there was a news report that Google is trialling with the Cleveland Clinic an online medical database for client records. The two organizations hope the trial will lead to the creation of a national system for sharing electronic medical records. Thus, one can see this becoming a linked online database in a similar manner to the WORLD Museum online database of the type I have suggested, although in the medical database with restricted access to the records.
See - Google to manage health records for Cleveland Clinic

Latest news - 3
On Feb 27 there is a reference to the launch of a comparable project called "Encyclopedia of Life". However its computers were overwhelmed on the first day and could not handle the traffic. The website at logged 11.5 million hits in the first five hours. It aims to have more than one million pages devoted to different species of life on Earth. This example shows firstly, the thirst for online knowledge and secondly, by implication the likely fate of museums which choose to ignore online visitors. Potential visitors will tend to say; "Why bother going to my museum to look at biological exhibits when much better information is so readily available online".

It would be great if someone from Microsoft happened to read this post, as if Microsoft pursued a WORLD Museum database it should give them their desired search engine advantage over Google.

Cost per visitor

Many moons ago I did train as an accountant. Most museums are mainly or significantly funded from the civic purse. Their charters usually include an obligation to educate and inform their community as much as possible. Historically museums have only focussed on foot traffic visitors in fulfilling this obligation.

The graph here shows the Smithsonian's cost per visitor at various locations. As can be seen they vary between $2 and $19 per visitor. The variation will largely be a factor of relative foot traffic numbers compared to the size of each display.

Based this and upon my accounting experience I would expect the relative costs to a museum for visitors of the three types mentioned and ideally after a WORLD Museum was established, to be as follows:

1 Traditional local foot traffic - measured in dollars per visitor
2 Student online - measured in tens of cents per visitor
3 Worldwide researchers and historians - measured single cents per visitor

The reason for 2 and 3 being so low is that once DVD's have been made and images and research information have been loaded into a data base, ongoing building and staffing costs allocatable to 2 and 3 will tend to reduce and be fairly small on a marginal cost basis.

It can be seen that the visitor of the type currently the target of most museums, i.e. foot traffic, is the most expensive. While foot traffic continues to be encouraged, costs will continue to rise as the whole background effort continues.

If museums were instead to refocus on "any person any where, having the means to view exhibited objects", and provide a good service to online visitors under categories 2 and 3, the average cost per visitor would fall dramatically as overall visitor numbers rose.

The extra costs to a museum of servicing online customers as indicated earlier are low. Hence there would be a cost advantage for a museum to move greater proportions of less popular exhibits to online access and retain "live" display areas for more popular inhouse exhibits.

This would help ensure museums meet their community obligations of education and information.

Falling foot traffic
19C and early 20C museums were endowed with many private collections. During those times, museums and art galleries more commonly included exhibitions of privately owned items in a public/private partnership approach.

In the later 20C there was a divergence of such from public/private partnership. The reason is not clear, but perhaps due to a social and academic resentment of private collections.

The result seems to have been that museums tend to be more introverted, only seeking private support by way of monetary donations, and with museum staff discounting the importance of private collections as part of a community's overall knowledge base.

This view ignores the scholarship and knowledge held by such private collectors, many of whom will be experts in their own field.

In the 21C there is a great deal of competition for the free time of the general public. Much more so than in the 20C or the 19C. The general public is much more sophisticated and assailed by change of all kinds. So much so that change is often regarded as the norm.

Television programmes have a new episode every week, if not every night. Movies are usually only seen once, thus movie theatres need to attract repeat business by changing the movie when patronage falls.

For museums to compete, regular changes of exhibits are needed and such exhibits need to include quality items, as low quality will be easily noticed and so discourage visitors.

This public need for change represents a major challenge for museums as they rarely have funds for new acquisitions and need to spend money on storage, preservation, and conservation, before they can consider spending money on acquisitions or building new displays based on their existing collection.

Museums, by their very nature are institutions and hence the staff, while hard working and often not well paid, may be institutionalised through limited freedom of action and tight spending constraints.

To achieve targeted foot traffic numbers, the apparent "quick fix" is to import an important and expensive exhibition from overseas. However, this is a quick fix and usually requires considerable funding. In some instances it may do more for the ego of the local organiser of the exhibition than it does for the ongoing good of the museum.

The conundrum is then how to grow foot traffic.

Building foot traffic
Like any ongoing problem, if the answer was easy, the problem would no longer exist.

Not being one to shy away from a challenge, the following thoughts are offered for consideration. Essentially, it is suggested there be a greater emphasis on public/private cooperation which is discussed under the following headings.

1 Visitor potential
2 Potential exhibits
3 Exhibit rotation

1 Visitor potential
In the 19C collecting was mainly the prerogative of the wealthy, not of the middle class. However, during the 20C and now 21C, the act of collecting is much more widely spread across the general public, and there is a much great awareness of historical items. Indeed since 1800 there have been over 200 years of events and products for a collector to form a collection from and there is better housing to preserve and prevent damage to personal treasures.

This is evidenced by TV programmes like The Antiques Roadshow, which attract huge crowds when they are filmed. Museums should ask themselves why the Roadshow can attract so many visitors, both to the event and also as a TV audience? Then view these crowds as potential museum visitors.

The answer to the programme's popularity is perhaps that a local resident can better relate to items looking like Aunt Doris's Staffordshire figure, than to an exhibit borrowed from an overseas museum of such value and rarity that it might possibly be worth a "gawk at", but is not really worth the effort of going to see, given other demands upon ones time.

As a TV programme the continuing attraction of the Roadshow is twofold. Firstly, that ordinary people find they have in their ownership, extraordinary items. Secondly, that viewers can say, "Gosh, that one is just like the one we have got!" Thus the programme is personalised.

Thus, the key to building foot traffic seems to be more frequent changing exhibitions and some way of personalising the museum experience for a visitor.

For example, a museum could have special days with a moderately higher admission price, where the admission price included a Roadshow type evaluation of one or two objects brought by the visitor.

My concerns over interactive exhibits with noise and light which are aimed at children are that they amount to dumbing down a museum and driving away adult visitors. Those exhibits might generate more noise by visiting school parties, but not much more. They are an attempt to compete with theme parks, as well as arcade and computer games. With the rapidity of change in that sector of the entertainment industry, it seems a misdirection of museum resources to continually introduce new interactive exhibits to need to keep up with competitive changes.

I believe children are just as keen to see exhibitions of Barbie dolls, kitchenalia, Dinky toys, and 19C/early20C children's clothes and books, etc mixed in with more traditional exhibits, which would stimulate their interest in history and collecting, as well as help them appreciate the importance of preserving items from our social history.

2 Potential exhibits
In any city of even moderate size there will be many private collectors, many of whom will be experts in their own field. The quality and potential visitor interest of items in such private collections are likely to surprise experts who see them for the first time.

One only has to consider over a period of say ten or twenty years, how many fine items of art or antiques change hands at local auctions, to realise how many items of high quality must be in local ownership. On top of these there will be inherited items and private specialist collections.

If private owners and collectors were given the opportunity to loan items to the museum, I feel sure that many would be very cooperative and delighted to share their knowledge and their collections, perhaps even being on hand to comment or answer questions during portions of any exhibition.

A mix of public/private exhibits from local sources will give a much increased chance of displaying a world class (those two words again!) exhibition, without the cost and complications of importing exhibitions from elsewhere.

Many private collections contain items of more recent vintage than museums generally hold. Visitors will remember having owned them as a child. Exhibitions of this nature will encourage parents to see again the toy cars they used to have and also bring their children to see them. Such modern displays can be mixed concurrently with exhibits of older items.

It is also likely that exhibitions of older items will contain some items similar to those currently owned by potential visitors to the museum and so invite the Antiques Roadshow type comment "Gosh, that one is just like the one we have got at home!", thus encouraging extra word-of-mouth foot traffic and making each visitor feel satisfied with their visit.

It would make a lot of sense for each museum to work with collectors' clubs, or holders of local annual displays of things such as; postage stamps, dolls, quilts, bottle clubs, etc. with a view to convincing them to hold their annual displays within the museum complex as part of the quarterly exhibition programme. This would generate extra foot traffic for both parties and also help ensure a regular turnover of high quality exhibitions through the museum complex.

3 Exhibit rotation
Naturally, some exhibits will remain constant. These will generally be the iconic items within the museum collection. Other constant exhibits are likely to be visitors' contextual favourite exhibits and those designed particularly at tourist traffic.

It is impossible to say with authority in a general paper like this what proportion should rotate, but it has to be more than a repeat visitor expects. If not, they will go away disappointed saying "Same old, same old!"

Instead they need to leave and say to their friends; "Have you seen all the changes at the museum?"

As mentioned above the 21C is characterised by change. A museum can only ignore this at its peril. The challenge is therefore to achieve maximum change in exhibits at minimum cost.

Just for the purpose of this discussion, it is suggested that 25% be constant contextual exhibits, 25% be tourist directed exhibits, 25% be complementary exhibits from the museum collection changing every six months, and 25% be complementary exhibits changing every quarter. (These percentages will be wildly wrong, so should be regarded as illustrative only.)

Whatever proportions were adopted, the quarterly changing exhibits should have several distinctly different exhibits within that section, to give the impression of variety and of frequent change. May be five or six different exhibitions changed each quarter

As an example, the Erie Art Museum features an ambitious 18-20 exhibit rotation each year in addition to displaying a 5000+ permanent collection, see

The challenge for a museum perhaps being to make the apparent worth of an entry fee in the eyes of visitors, no greater than say two-thirds of the current value of a movie ticket, to be subconsciously compared with a museum visit of similar time duration.

Although a single museum could adopt this target, a coordinated approach by several museums acting together may enable the sharing of set up costs for exhibitions which can rotate through all the museums over a two or three year period.

The quarterly changing exhibits would be the logical group to rotate through several museums acting together. This would also be the area to approach private collectors seeking to borrow objects which could rotate as part of a display through the museums.

For example a museum group might publish its projected exhibitions on a rolling three year basis and invite local or regional private collectors to loan items to a relevant exhibition. Potential exhibitions are endless, but examples might include;
Local ethnic culture
Regional ethnic culture
National ethnic culture
Greek and Roman culture
English Pottery and porcelain
Art pottery
Asian porcelain
Military items
Antique Furniture
Art deco and 20C furniture
19C art
Modern art
History of costume
Early 20C toys
Early books and illustrations

A condition of accepting private items for loan might be that details must be added into the academic online database, preserving owner anonymity if desired, so that the overall subject research database is enhanced on an ongoing basis after the exhibition has concluded and available for future research.

Logically, such exhibitions would include nominated "Roadshow" events for say the first week or two of the exhibition, so that for a higher admission price, visitors were entitled to bring an item relevant to that exhibition for expert comment. For example small bronzes during the Bronze Exhibition.

It could also be made known that two or three display cabinets had been kept empty at the start of the exhibition with a view to inviting any Roadshow "discoveries" or quality items of interest brought in by visitors to join the exhibition for its duration. Such additions could invite repeat visitors who were interested to see what specialist items had been added to the original display. This concept should also make for great television.

Such public/private cooperation would lead to much greater chance for fund raising support from interested patrons, for example to make important acquisitions. Also a more benevolent environment resulting over time in future legacies to a museum of money or collections, as were more common in the 19C and early 20C.

I agree with the new museum director that my local museum needs to review its activities. Although the museum has not yet indicated its thoughts about the future, I feel to be a success the focus needs to seek to educate and inform Internet visitors as well as foot traffic.

I fear to focus on interactive exhibits as a form of entertainment to attract children, amounts to dumbing down the educational purpose of a museum and risks losing the respect of its patrons. This is a sure path to irrelevance.

I would like museum websites to be simpler and less like citadels, with the website development money saved spent instead on online help and search facilities.

Potential saviours for museums are a Microsoft or Google provided online WORLD Museum database, together with potential public/private exhibitions as a means of helping achieve more frequent changes of high quality exhibits.

Thus a positive challenge to all museum directors is; "Please open all your doors, to any person anywhere having the means to view exhibited objects, so that you do not need to close the front door".

(For subsequent March 2008 comment, see View)

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