Who’s visiting?

I’ve just started having a look through Arts and Culture in Australia: a Statistical Overview, which has recently been put out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. (Download PDF via this page). Now, the ABS is hardly known for its page-turners, but it’s got off to a promising start with some intriguing figures.

In the first section, there are some stats looking at attendance to cultural venues according to age group (% visiting in the past 12 months). I wanted to see if there were any patterns in these data, so I took the numbers and graphed them out:

Attendance rate by age, using figures from table 1.4 in ABS report

It’s a bit hard to see what’s going on here, besides the fact that the cinema is very popular with teens and declines steadily with age (and I don’t think I needed ABS data to tell me that!). So to get a closer look, I took the same data and graphed just the figures given for the cultural / heritage venues (Museums, Art Galleries, Zoos & Aquaria and Botanic Gardens):

Attendance by age, Cultural and Heritage sites only (source: ABS)

This graph is a little more illuminating. Interestingly, despite reports that their audiences have distinct differences, Museums and Art Galleries seem follow a very similar curve – i.e. roughly the same proportion and age of people are visiting. And both show fairly predictable dip in the 18-24 age range (a notoriously hard group to catch).

Zoos also show a similar-ish pattern, although at a higher level of visitation in the middle range. This peak at 25-34 & 35-44 age groups is also not surprising, given these would be the peak age of people taking their children to visit the zoo.

The one that does surprise me out of all of this is the curve for Botanic Gardens – from a similar baseline at age 15-17, the curve defies the 18-24 dip of the others, and reaches a steadier, more sustained plateau.

The meaning of this – who knows? I just made up these graphs with the figures given, and it may or may not be appropriate to re-present the raw figures in this way. So yes, I could be over simplifying, or on the other hand this could be an interesting pattern to investigate further. If the report sheds any further light on the question, I’ll let you know!

MA 2010 Conference: Bits ‘n’ Pieces #3

My final list of musings. . .

  • Museum History: Museums Victoria Director J Patrick Greene presented a quick history of natural history exhibitions from the 19th century to the present day. Developments have reflected the times: in the 1960s, the advent of wildlife documentaries made people think that exhibitions would be soon redundant, and many collections were locked away and even destroyed. Then in the 1970s, increased environmental awareness gave natural history collections a new importance and social relevance. From the 1990s, advances in technology have transformed Natural History exhibitions (as with exhibitions in general).

    Another thought-provoking history of exhibitions was presented by Eureka Henrich, who is currently looking at trends in exhibitions presenting migration history over the past 30 years. Exhibitions inevitably reflect the cultural context in which they are developed – they are a product of their time – and thus can themselves be used as a historical resource. I found this idea intriguing, and can see it as a fertile territory for further studies.

  • Verbs versus nouns: Stephen Heppell from Heppell.net has already inspired a few post-conference blog posts, (see here and here) so I won’t repeat them here. But I did really like his idea of being defined more by our verbs (i.e. what we do) than our nouns (i.e. what we are).
  • Design in all dimensions: Tim Rolfe from MV Studios (Museum Victoria’s exhibition design arm) described some of their newer exhibitions that allow visitors to get closer to objects and see them from different angles – from above and below as well as from beside. I liked this idea of making use of the full three-dimensions of an exhibition space – often in the design stages, we’re constantly looking at the spaces ‘in plan’ and it’s easy to forget about the possibilities of the vertical dimension.

I’ll close my series of MA2010 conference posts with a quotation from James Morton of the Scottish Transgender Alliance which came via Richard Sandell:

The boundaries need to be pushed . . . or they simply don’t move.

Also, a special thanks to MA Vic for staging the conference. It was great to see so many interesting presentations, catch up with colleagues and meet new people – either face to face or virtually via the Twitter stream. Let’s keep the conversation going . . .

Re-presenting ‘The Lust Branch’

Don’t let the title fool you – this is yet another instalment in my series of posts from the MA National Conference. Allow me to explain . . .

The Conference was held at the University of Melbourne, which is also the site of the Grainger Museum. This museum, built in the 1930s, was established at the behest of Melbourne-born composer, arranger and pianist Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882 – 1961). Grainger created it as an autobiographical museum, documenting his life and influences through a collection of publications, correspondence, musical scores and a range of objects including experimental musical instruments.

There is a link to my current work here, hence the stand-alone post: while Grainger spent the vast majority of his life in Europe and the US, he was buried in Adelaide at West Terrace Cemetery, in the family plot of his Adelaide-born mother. Over the past few months I have been working on interpretive text for a self-guided heritage trail for the cemetery, and Grainger’s grave is one of the stops on the trail. His prolific, diverse and eccentric life have proved challenging to interpret in the context of a small interpretive sign comprising a mere 175 words!

The Grainger Museum has recently undergone a redevelopment, and I managed a quick look around during one of the conference lunch breaks. In addition, Brian Allison from the University presented a paper on the challenges presented by a particular section of the collection.

There was a box of items under lock and key, which Grainger had instructed was not to be opened until 10 years after his death. And so, in 1971, it was time for the curators to open the mysterious box to see what wisdom lay within. Brian said he would have liked to have been a fly on the wall that day. And how. What emerged was ‘The Lust Branch’ – a collection of writings, objects and photographs which graphically explored the darker aspects of Grainger’s sexuality.

To put it bluntly, Grainger was a sadomasochist. He photographed his flagellated body, set out detailed instructions for whipping, and left behind an extensive collection of whips, blood-soaked clothing and other home-made paraphernalia.

A selection of whips from the Grainger museum

Grainger believed his sexual expression was inextricably linked with his artistic expression; thus his creative works could not be fully understood without exploring his darker passions. But this was not a story that early 1970s Melbourne was ready for. Consequently, the collection presented a curatorial headache and has been, in effect, ‘censored’ for the best part of 40 years.

As part of the museum redevelopment, the University decided it was high time to tackle this part of the collection. And while they initially set out to present it no-holds-barred, there were legitimate audience and legal concerns – some of the photographs are sufficiently graphic as to be illegal to put on public display; plus the University had to take into account their target audiences, not least the nearby Ladies’ College who use the museum as an important musical resource.

The resulting display consists of a graphic montage of some of the documents and photographs (not all of them are particularly confronting, but it’s by no means sugar-coated), opposite a case displaying a large collection of whips. It is presented discreetly without being hidden, and I think on balance it is well done and unlikely to cause a furore. Indeed, by 21st century standards, Grainger’s views on racial purity (also covered in the museum) are arguably more controversial than his sexual predilections!

But none of these more controversial elements are presented in a way that overshadows or detracts from Grainger’s talent and achievements in other fields. The majority of the museum is all about the music.

MA 2010 Conference: Bits ‘n’ Pieces #2

A few more notes, comments and observations from the MA2010 conference (see the first chapter here):

  • Audiences are hungry for new perspectives: Kate Spinks from the Victoria Police Museum gave a presentation on their new exhibition “Ambush”, about the Kelly gang’s attack on a group of policemen at Stringybark Creek. This exhibition interprets the incident from the perspective of the police, drawing upon the recollections of the one policeman who survived the attack. Kate reported that visitors welcomed these new perspectives and points of view – they know that the romanticised tales of the Kelly gang are not the whole story, and are keen to hear the other side.
  • Customer service benchmarks are continually moving: Melbourne Museum has recently started selling tickets online for major exhibitions like Pompeii (2009) and Titanic (2010). The proportion of online presales is steadily increasing, as are customer expectations regarding the extent and quality of the online purchasing experience. Many people now view the ability to buy tickets online, etc. as a basic level of service, not an added extra.
  • Watch your language: when visitors use words like ‘interactive’, they don’t necessarily mean what we think. They might mean ‘immersive’ or the ability to get up close to an exhibit. We can’t assume we know the meaning of the terminology that visitors use in interviews. Drawing from her PhD research, Dr Tiina Roppola from the University of Canberra gave out some useful tips for interviewing visitors and drawing out from them what they mean in their own words.
  • Museum by popular demand: Lindsay Richardson from the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas, TX presented at the conference as part of the MA Historians’ network’s global curator exchange. The ‘6th Floor’ refers to the floor of the Texas Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. A museum arose at the assassination site ‘by accident’ – originally the municipality wanted to gloss over this chapter of its history, but the public wouldn’t let that happen. Thus the museum opened in 1989, originally intended just as a temporary exhibition to placate the thousands of visitors who made the pilgrimage to the site. However a huge visitor spike (500,000 people) in the year after the ‘JFK’ movie (1990-1991) was the catalyst for the museum gradually gaining permanence and building up a collection pertaining to the assassination’s aftermath (items relating to the assassination itself are more problematic, given they are criminal evidence).
  • “Dumb blondes of the art world”: David McFadden, Director of the Museum of Art and Design, said this is how craft was often dismissed by the fine arts fraternity. But he described the ‘blur zone’, where the hierarchies and boundaries between art, craft and design are being blurred and eliminated. (Incidentally, David said that 48% of his museum’s collection is by female artists, in comparison to other art museums where the percentage barely gets above single figures . . .)

These tidbits just keep leaping out of my conference notebook – more to come in another installation . . .

Exhibition Critique: “Screenworlds”

One of my favourite sessions from last week’s MA National Conference (see also here) was the ‘Exhibition Critique’ session. This was a thought-provoking peer review of an exhibition, bringing together designers, curators and a panel of expert reviewers to discuss the exhibition from the perspective of both the design challenges and the resulting visitor experience.

The subject of this year’s critique was Screenworlds, the permanent exhibition at ACMI which opened in September 2009.

"Emergence" section of Screenworlds (from ACMI's website)

I’d visited this exhibition not long after it opened, albeit a quick streak through at the tail end of a lightning trip to Melbourne. So I was familiar with the exhibition, but nearly 12 months down the track, was relying on the lasting impressions I had rather than any immediate recollections (probably not a bad starting point really).

The session kicked off with the ACMI team, led by Michael Parry, giving a brief overview of the exhibition’s history, processes and challenges, along with some visitor feedback they’d collected. (This bit was done while the exhibit reviewers were out of the room, so that it could not affect their critiques later in the session). Michael elaborated on some of this at a later conference session, and I’ll summarise the salient points from both sessions here:

  • ACMI had a difficult first few years, tied in with some of the early teething problems of Federation Square. ACMI hosted numerous temporary exhibitions, but there was no consistent offer. So Screenworlds was unusual in that it was an exhibition conceived to solve a problem.
  • The Design and Content Development processes were conducted in parallel. The initial intention of this was to save time, however this turned out not to be the case: it often entailed considerable design re-iterations, and sometimes design decisions made early in the process created unforeseen constraints in the way the emerging content could be presented. On the other hand, the parallel process created oppourtunities and exhibits that would not have emerged if all the content decisions had been made before the designers were called in. (This resonates with my experience of contractual tensions in exhibition development process – from a Project Manager’s point of view, the more certainty there is in the project at the outset, the better. You want to limit re-designs and the time, cost and hassle they entail. But on the other hand, steering too hard down that route can stifle creative opportunities.) As Michael said, the only way around this is for all team members (in-house and consultants) to enter the process with their eyes open and ready to navigate the bumps along the road (presumably with contractual and fee structures that allow this).
  • By definition, the content was overwhelmingly screen-based (there are apparently some 250 screens across the exhibition!). But they couldn’t use all the content they wanted, often due to format and copyright constraints.
  • The content and the slightly awkwardly-shaped angular cloverleaf exhibition space both lent themselves to the exhibition being divided into three parts:
    Emergence (history of the development of different screen based media);
    Voices (how the moving image shaped Australia, and how Australians shaped the moving image – from a cultural rather than a production-process perspective);
    Sensation (the most interactive and immersive area, looking at commonalities between media. I think this is also the bit that includes the games lab).
  • The low ceiling and hard surfaces were softened using curved surfaces; these were made of bamboo and other renewable materials.
  • In the year since opening, some 340,000 people have visited the exhibition, roughly half from outside Melbourne. 24% of these visitors spend longer than 1.5 hours in the exhibition and there is a fair bit of repeat visitation. From visitor surveys, the main complaints they have are density and audio tracks interfering with one another (9% of visitors). The team were aware that this was going to be an issue, but one which was somewhat inherent given the content. The design solution was a self-aware compromise on this front.

At this stage, our reviewers entered the room. They were: Bryon Cunningham (Cunningham Martyn Design), Bliss Jensen (Museum Victoria) and Tim Fisher (Curator at Victorian Arts Centre). They each presented their thoughts upon visiting the exhibition.

Bryon liked the simple graphic map which was handed at the entrance – it clearly set out the space and he thought he would have found navigation difficult without it. He found the opening section (Emergence) overwhelming – a cacophony of activity and noise. But he liked to escape from it into the microcinemas (the white domes in the pictures above). He also thought there was a lot of text. Design-wise, he liked the lighting and curved shapes which he said brought welcome relief from the ubiquitous angles of Federation Square. He made an analogy to a department store – with piles of content to choose from, and mirrors to create an illusion of space.

Bliss was less confronted by the noise – in fact it drew her in and kept her moving from post to post. She liked the Australian perspective in an international context (care had been taken by the curatorial to make this Australian content neither parochial nor jingoistic). She observed that there was so much to take in on a first visit, and it took a while to focus on one thing. She started off looking methodically at each section, but soon lost stamina. Bliss also commented on some of the exhibition’s ergonomics – some of the tabletop viewfinders were positioned very low, and she wondered if the target age of the content and the ergonomic range of the exhibit were compatible in all instances (e.g. more adult-targeted content in low-positioned viewfinders). Compared to Bryon, Bliss was less taken with the physical form of the design, not feeling it was all that consistent with the curatorial messages. (Bryon apparently took the forms at face value, whereas Bliss seemingly wanted them to represent something meaningful).

Tim started out by acknowledging that as a permanent exhibition, this was ‘crying out’ to be done. But again, his critique was in the sheer density of content – was there too much stuff in this exhibition? There was much well-researched and written content, but it was cluttered and he didn’t feel there was any clear direction about where to go first. For Tim, museum fatigue set in from the outset – the sheer overwhelming density causing his attention span to wane “against my will”.

All three reviewers also spent time observing other visitors to the exhibition (indeed, Bryon prefaced his review by asking whether as exhibition ‘experts’, we are in the right place to review an exhibition compared to the general public). They all noticed generational differences in the way visitors used the exhibition – younger visitors seemed more confident in negotiating the visual and aural density (children of the information age?), and in any case, bee-lined for the games area more or less straight away.

The session then broadened out into a more open discussion between the ACMI team, the reviewers and the rest of the audience. Apparently an earlier iteration of the ‘Emergence’ exhibition had even more content. There was colour-coding of different themes in the ‘Emergence’ area, although this detail seemed to be lost on some of the reviewers (I’m starting to have my suspicions about the effectiveness of colour-coding as a visual signpost for the majority of visitors).

Over the weekend, I had another quick trip through the exhibition (cut short as it was near closing time; plus I was already a bit exhibitioned-out, fresh from the Tim Burton exhibition). Again the visual density of ‘Emergence’ struck me, but it seemed less intimidating the second time round. I don’t think I went into the microcinemas the first time (maybe they were all busy) but found them to be useful respite and a good way of delving into more detailed content.

In one of the lower-hanging microcinemas, I observed a kid who was probably no older than three confidently navigating the touchscreen interface. I wonder if our understanding of visitors in exhibitions can keep pace with the ever-increasing savvy of said visitors?

MA 2010 Conference: Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1

Last week was the 2010 Museums Australia National Conference – “Interesting times for Collections” – hosted by Museums Australia (Victoria) at the University of Melbourne.

About 600 delegates from across Australia, along with a few international visitors, came to hear from an impressive list of speakers including a considerable number of international keynotes.

My first instalment of highlights, notes and observations (which will be in no particular order):

  • Museums shouldn’t be afraid to have an opinion: Professor Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester opened proceedings with a keynote on the social role of museums from a human rights perspective. He drew upon case studies from the UK and USA showing how museums can play an important role in raising community awareness of marginalised perspectives including sensitive topics surrounding religion, sexuality and disability.

    One case study clearly demonstrated that there was no such thing as a ‘neutral’ position – a single text panel in the Walt Whitman interpretive center in USA attracted simultanous protests from both gay rights groups and the Christian community, on the one hand for ‘erasing history’ and on the other for ‘implied sinfulness’. Prof. Sandell said that such controversy was not something that museums should shy away from. He went further, arguing that it was inappropriate for museums to duck controversial issues by ‘presenting all sides and letting visitors make up their minds’. In this there was an interesting parallel to Amanda Lohrey’s criticism of a lack of curatorial courage in exhibition authorship (as mentioned in a previous post).

  • Does Australia need a museum diet? At the other end of the conference, during the closing plenaries, museum consultant Kylie Winkworth presented a challenging paper about the ‘political and policy vacuum’ which she believes is creating a sustainability crisis for smaller and regional museums. She argued that large scale capital developments in big cities are starving smaller museums of much-needed funds for improving care of and access to collections. She also warned that collections were being amassed haphazardly and unsustainably, with no serious discussion in the sector of deacessioning as the obvious corollary to sustainable collections development.

    The audience gasped when Ms Winkworth presented figures showing that Australia has 1 museum per 7,500 people, whereas in the UK and US it is 24,000 and US 17,500 respectively. There was some debate on the #ma2010conf Twitter feed as to whether such a per capita comparison was helpful, but nonetheless it was a brave and provocative presentation. I thought there was also a lot of truth to her assertion that political leaders tend to prefer something shiny and new, with all the associated ribbon-cutting and prestige, rather than adequately fund that which already exists – but then is hardly an exclusively Australian problem.

  • Exhibition ‘hardware’ vs ‘software’: observing a similar phenomenon, Susanna Siu from the Leisure and Cultural Services in Hong Kong confirmed that there is roughly 1 museum opening every 3 days in China at the moment. She described the current focus of museum development to be more on ‘hardware’ (i.e. statement buildings by celebrity architects) more than ‘software’ (which I took to mean collections, exhibitions and programs). I was reminded of the UK’s Millennium building boom in the late ’90s / early ’00s. How the China experience will pan out in the long run will be one to watch.

Over the coming few days I’ll go through my notes and add further posts – some sessions warrant a post all of their own so much more to come!