Are museums too preoccupied by visitor numbers?
Originally published by Apollo on 23/04/2018 - www.apollo-magazine.com
Visitor numbers are useful for tracking trends, and for funding applications and advocacy. But Nicholas Penny, former director of the National Gallery in London, argues that we need to look behind and beyond these basic figures to see the full picture.
There's a definite benefit to getting visitors 'through the door'. Even if a visitor just comes in to use the bathroom or visit your café, it opens up a chance for them to engage with your cultural offer. But it's important to think about how you can start to measure visitor engagement as well as attendance.
"Surveys are as good as the questions they ask, and perhaps too many of the questions that are currently being asked relate to the ‘success’ (meaning the popularity) of temporary exhibitions. We are told that the number of UK citizens visiting our galleries has increased, but the country’s population is also increasing – so one set of figures needs another if it is to mean much. If the number of visitors looking for the ‘iconic’ pictures increases, do other parts of the collection also receive more attention, or less? Above all, does increasing ‘foot-fall’ result in an extension of ‘dwell-time’? Is any section of the visiting public showing signs of looking for longer and with more care at an individual work of art? Given that a director cannot ignore attendance figures, he or she might at least insert them into a whole range of more important information that would encourage planning not just for tomorrow but for posterity."