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INTERCOM: International Committee on Management

Blockbuster Exhibitions - Why?

David Fleming, Director, National Museums Liverpool, UK
ICOM, Seoul, 6 October 2004

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I wish to make a few preliminary remarks. First, the context for assessing the role and value of "blockbuster" exhibitions is simply the role and value of museums, that is essentially to help us understand human nature and the human condition, and our environment. Museums are first and foremost agents of learning, and assembling and using collections is just one method of helping bring about learning. The theme of this ICOM conference, 'Intangible Heritage', illustrates that museums' core business is not solely about collections.

Second, the ambition of any worthwhile museum is to develop, broaden, and grow its audiences. Yet, museums still have restricted appeal worldwide: many people do not visit, though most museums work very hard to persuade them to do so. Museums employ a variety of methods to achieve this, for example, the use of computer and other technology in displays, the employment of exciting design to create atmosphere, role play and theatre, the collections themselves.

But the cornerstone of a museum's ability to create new audiences is the temporary exhibition or, more accurately, changing exhibitions. No museum operates without bringing about marketable change. Museums cannot stand still. In our seven Liverpool museums we produce 25-30 exhibitions per year, at a cost of c$1.5 million. In the modern world there is intense competition for the public's time and attention, and museums must refresh offer their offer constantly if they wish to maintain, or enlarge, their appeal.

In Liverpool, we produce lots of types of exhibition:

  1. small scale "objects in focus" e.g. linked to current events, new research or acquisitions
  2. small scale, community exhibits - produced in collaboration
  3. medium scale, learning/collection based targeting particular audiences e.g. schools
  4. larger scale, family friendly exhibitions which have broader categories and longer runs
  5. "mini blockbusters", with a budget of perhaps up to $500,000.

What, then, is a blockbuster exhibition? Since the 1980s, this has been a popular term for a special and spectacular exhibition in a museum or art gallery, which attracts large crowds and probably costs a lot of money both to create, and to visit. Blockbusters are, in professional terms, controversial.

Let's look at both sides of the argument:

The case for the defence

  1. They are popular - lots of people visit successful blockbusters. A notorious example is Italian Art 1200-1900, sent to London in 1930 on the orders of Mussolini to act as propaganda, visited by 540,000, and prompting a Punch cartoon portraying "Mussolini the Magnificent"...1

    A Monet exhibition at the same venue, the Royal Academy, attracted 658,000 visits in 1990, while a Titanic exhibition in Florida in 1997 attracted 830,000 (the James Cameron film opened the month after exhibition did).2 The Treasures of Tutankhamen at the British Museum in 1972 attracted almost 1.7 million visits3. Blockbusters therefore help counter accusations that a museum is elitist, through their sheer scale of appeal.
  2. Visitors get the chance to see things brought together, creating a once in a lifetime experience. A Vermeer exhibition shown in The Hague and Washington DC in 1995-6 included two thirds of the artist's surviving paintings, a number not assembled together since 1696 when 21 of them were auctioned4.
  3. Blockbusters attract new visitors, who then go on to look at the rest of the museum. 44% of those who visited the Mario Testino show at London's National Portrait Gallery in 2002 were first time visitors to the gallery.5 Recent fashion-orientated shows at the Victoria and Albert Museum have attracted a large number of 16-24 year olds. These exhibitions work best if the show is linked to the museum's permanent collections.
  4. Blockbusters generate media coverage, thus raising the profile of the museum. The Victoria and Albert Museum's Art Deco show recently spawned two television programmes.6
  5. Blockbusters can promote creativity and scholastic excellence among the museum's staff.
  6. Blockbusters can make money through the public's willingness to pay sizable admission fees, thus perhaps enabling the museum to improve the rest of its service. Titanic made $3m for the Florida International Museum in 1998.7 So a museum can safeguard its financial viability.
  7. Blockbusters can attract sponsors, and museums can be associated with leading, perhaps global brands, with huge marketing benefit.

The case for the prosecution

  1. Blockbusters present a narrow range of subjects and seldom shed new light on history or art history. Because of the need to bring together "treasures", the exhibits are never what the curators intended, and requests for loans are frequently refused.

    The most glaring example was the Royal Academy's massively hyped Monet In the 20th Century show in 1998. The show presented itself as the last word on Monet's late waterlily paintings. This was ridiculous. The most important late paintings by Monet, his final masterpieces, are housed permanently in the custom built space in the Musee do L'Orangerie in Paris. So the exhibition we queued for was not at all the unmissable, definitive survey of late Monet it claimed to be but a second best alternative to visiting Paris.8

    Jones says that the blockbuster encourages an "idiotic attitude to art" and falsely promises both comprehensiveness and urgency - see it now before it's too late. "There's always something chest-beating and phoney about it," he says. Rather than being genuine explorations of an artist, blockbusters become convenient packages to market to a public anxious not to miss out on the latest thing.
  2. Blockbusters lead to a "dumbing down" of the museum and its message. The public is fed a diet of names and subjects which is closely related to the cult of celebrity enjoyed by sport and movie stars - Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, James Bond, Titian, Rembrandt, Tutankhamen; Titanic, Tyrannosaurus Rex: good, bad or indifferent, the hype is relentless - less scholarship, more sensation. London's Science Museum was criticised recently for showing the Lord of The Rings exhibition of "props, costumes and gadgetry" from the movie.9 What do exhibits of Galadriel's costume, Aragorn's weapons, Frodo's hobbit home and hairy prosthetic feet have to do with museum's aim of promoting the knowledge of science, technology, industry and medicine? Blockbusters may be developed primarily to be popular and provide entertainment rather than for their educational and cultural value.
  3. Because of costs, museums find themselves seeking commercial sponsorship, or mount exhibits relating to the commercial world. Recent examples of the latter include Versace and Vivienne Westwood at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Armani at the Royal Academy. There is a risk that the demands of sponsors take precedence over host venues' own goals. One critic of the Westwood exhibition this year wrote: "There are no critical words on the walls or catalogue and this inevitably raises questions about critical distain and curatorial objectivity. What is the extent of Westwood's input into the exhibition?"10

    An Armani exhibition in New York's Guggenheim Museum led to the suspicion that the exhibition was nothing more than a trade show, and caused Philippe de Montebello, Director of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to describe the Guggenheim's approach as "a betrayal of public trust".11 His own museum, though, was criticised for accepting sponsorship from a tobacco company for the Origins of Impressionism in 1994.12 Some say the cost of blockbusters, and the usual need for sponsorship, acts as a form of censorship, because not all shows will appeal to sponsors, and therefore the museum cannot afford to stray outside of certain subject boundaries which are acceptable to sponsors.
  4. The actual visitor experience of blockbusters is a poor one because success leads all too frequently to overcrowding.
    "Titian on a busy Saturday was a nightmare, a slowly turning crush that obscured many of the paintings. Durer that the British Museum was similarly awful: wonderful works of which you could barely get a 30 second uninterrupted view"13
    Thus, the seeming democratisation of art is an illusion, because there can be no meaningful experience. Moreover, the poor quality of the experience may dissuade repeat visits, making nonsense of claims of sustainable audience development.
  5. The effort required to mount blockbusters may distract staff from other work - they may consume vast quantity of resources, not just money, and lead to "institutional burn out".
  6. Blockbusters create a treadmill. Museums raise expectations among sponsors, media and the public, which it might not be possible to meet.
  7. Blockbuster success may persuade public funding bodies to reduce their support.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

I have no doubt some of criticism of blockbuster is pure snobbery, uttered by art critics who have no regard for museums as places that should provide for everyone rather than just themselves and other regular users. They find the democratization of museums threatening. My view is that exhibitions that attract public, especially a new public, are a good thing, as long as this leads to sustained contact. However, it is a spurious argument to say that an exhibition with a substantial admission charge is in any way socially inclusive - it's not, and I fear that most art blockbusters, for example, cater for existing audiences only.

So, should museums devote so much effort and money to exhibitions which may not be accessible to all? Perhaps, if they thereby make money so as to improve rest of museum, but we should stop pretending that blockbusters are in any way a panacea for museums which fail to attract diverse audience. They are not, and unless they are free to visit, they can never hope to fulfil that role. Also, blockbusters tend to take place in a relatively few cities - they are often not accessible to geographically spread audiences which are unable to travel.

One of NML's own staff, Keeper of Art Galleries Julian Treuherz, was once quoted that he finds it "worrying that there are people going to exhibitions like Cezanne who have not been to their local gallery in years."14 That local gallery, Walker Art Gallery Art Gallery, contains one of Europe's finest collections, including works by Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt and Poussin - and a Cezanne! as well as all the great British artists of 18th-20th centuries. Is this testament, perhaps, to the seduction of blockbuster marketing, ultimately no more than a triumph of style over substance?


I am grateful to Francoise Phillips for her help in my writing this paper.

1  Francis Haskell, The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, Yale, 2000; Olive Clancy, 'Are blockbuster exhibitions killing art?' BBC News Online, 26 March 2001.

2  David K Rogers, 'Despite ups and downs, museum leads downtown resurrection', St Petersburg Times, 11 November 1999.

3  Emma Barker, Exhibiting the canon: the blockbuster show, Contemporary Cultures of Display, Yale, 1999, pp 127-45.

4  Ibid.

5  Jane Morris, 'Join the Queue', Museums Journal, November 2003, pp18-9.

6  Morris, op cit.

7  Rogers, op cit.

8  Jonathan Jones, 'The truth about those mega-exhibitions', The Guardian, 2 January 2001.

9  Louise Jury, 'Lord of the Rings at the Science Museum', The Independent, 16 September 2003.

10  Nicky Ryan, 'Too close for comfort', Museums Journal, May 2004, pp 36-7.

11  Sarah Murray, 'Joining forces', Museums Journal, September 2001, pp 44-5.

12  Barker, op cit.

13  Morris, op cit.

14  Barker, op cit.

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