Australian attendance at cultural venues: state-by-state breakdowns

Last year, I wrote a series of blog posts about the ABS report: Arts and Culture in Australia – a statistical overview. This report did have museum attendance figures, but focused primarily on the funding mix of museums and other cultural venues.

A recent article on the Perth Now website, lamenting the relatively low levels of cultural participation and funding in Western Australia, alerted me to the release of a more recent report, which looks at museum attendance in more detail and gives a state-by-state breakdown.

The full report is available on the ABS website as always, but I thought I’d again take a look at the numbers and give my thoughts on what they might mean (and, as always, I appreciate your comments and additional perspectives!).

First, the headline figures – attendance numbers at cultural venues state-by-state:

Attendance at cultural venues and events 2009-2010 (source: ABS report cited above). *NT figures pertain only to urban areas. **Performing arts includes classical concerts, popular concerts, theatre, dance, musicals and operas. These are broken down in the full report but only the aggregates are used here.

Overall, over 85% of people aged over 15 in Australia attended at least one cultural venue or event for the year 2009-10. For people aged 15-17, participation rates were the highest at 97%. Participation decreased with age, and the lowest participation rate (64%) was that of the over 75s.

Total participation rates (Source: ABS)

Participation rates are also broken down by state and territory:

Cultural participation and attendance rates (percentages), by venue type and by state (Source: ABS)

Based on these figures, ACT residents are among the most active participants in culture, being the most likely to have visited an Art Gallery, Museum, Archive, Library, Performing Arts event or Cinema in the past year. With the high density of National Museums and Galleries in the Capital, the high attendance at these venues is not all that surprising – it’s a matter of availability. However cinemas, hardly unique to Canberra, are well attended as well. (Note that the data records people’s place of residence, not the venue they attended. So these numbers just ACT residents, not people from other states visiting Museums in the Capital. The report gives a breakdown of  where people attended venues in relation to where they live on pp 19-20).

As the Perth Now article said, WA residents are the least likely in the country to attend an Art Gallery; Museum attendance is also below average in that state. Having said that, WA is not alone: participation rates are below average in NSW (albeit slightly) across the board.

NT residents were the most likely to attend zoological parks and aquaria, by a significant margin. SA is above the national average for this year too and I wonder if this is a consistent figure or indicative of the ‘Panda effect’ (the Adelaide Zoo’s Panda Enclosure opened in late 2009 and there has reportedly been a jump in visitor numbers since then.)

Overall what these differences between states mean, it’s hard to tell: it’s possible that they are simply due other geographic and demographic differences between states. However, as the Perth Now article suggests, there could be genuine differences between states and their attitudes to culture. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

One pointer towards a geographic explanation (at least in part) is the difference in participation rates between capital cities and elsewhere. This is possibly skewing the figures for those states which have a higher proportion of their population residing outside the capital:

Attendance to cultural venues by region (Source: ABS)

The report also gives breakdowns of visitation by age and sex, household composition, country of origin, labour force status, educational attainment and household income, but I won’t delve into those here – if you’re interested in these figures, go to the original report (see link to ABS website above).

Later in the report, they have some figures showing attendance trends over the past 10 years, which I’ll look into for a future post.

‘Fun’ and ‘edutainment’

How many times have you seen slogans along the lines of:

We make [insert ostensibly worthy-but-dull topic here] FUN!!!

Science centres and museums are repeat offenders in this regard. And I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with this habit, although I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why. Is it just because it sounds so trite, or is there something deeper at play here?

What is ‘fun’ anyway? Some people think that throwing themselves off a bridge, tethered only by a flexible piece of rope, is the pinnacle of fun and excitement. They part with hundreds of dollars for the privilege. Personally I couldn’t think of anything worse!

When it comes to museum visiting, ‘fun’ is a particularly problematic word. And again, it’s because fun means different things to different people – for some it implies mindless entertainment (and possibly things going ‘bang’); for others it has a more nuanced meaning. To some extent, what people mean by the word ‘fun’ means seems to depend on their age and cultural background.

The lesson here for me is that we have to be careful of the terminology we use (and hear) when speaking to visitors – just because we’re using common language, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all talking about the same thing. It makes it even more important that we let visitors describe and elaborate upon things in their own words as much as possible in our research, and avoid too many pre-defined (and maybe inadvertantly loaded) categories.

Having said that, for some visitors at least, museum visiting is something they definitely would describe as ‘fun’ (as this paper by one of my supervisors, Jan Packer, demonstrates). Drawing from visitors’ descriptions and reflections on their experiences in museums and other free choice learning settings, the paper describes five key aspects of learning for ‘fun’ in museums:

  1. Learning for fun encompasses a mixture of discovery, exploration, mental stimulation and excitement.
  2. The majority of visitors to educational leisure settings consider learning to be, more than anything else, enjoyable.
  3. Although most visitors don’t come with a deliberate intention to learn, they do seek or are unconsciously drawn into an experience that incorporates learning.
  4. Visitors identify four conditions (a sense of discovery or fascination; appeal to multiple senses; a sense that the learning happens ‘effortlessly’; availability of choice in the experience) that together are conducive to the learning for fun experience.
  5. Visitors value learning for fun because it is a potentially transformative experience (i.e. it helps people see the world in new ways and appreciate things differently).

Looking at this paper, I think it starts to nail what my problem with the “making xxx FUN!” schtick is. It betrays a lack of confidence in our material, as well as an underestimation of our audiences. It assumes people will only want to engage with the watered-down and sugared-up version of what we have to offer. Yes we need to find ‘hooks’ with which to engage our audience, but this doesn’t necessarily require ‘dumbing down’ (another horrible term!) or sensationalism.

Which brings me to another rather nasty neologism from the museums and science centres world: ‘edutainment’. Several years ago, it was not uncommon to go to a conference presentation where the words ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ were put at opposite ends of a spectrum.  ‘Education’ was serious, worthy-but-dull stuff; the ‘bitter pill’ which needed sugarcoating by mixing in some whizz-bang, nonchallenging ‘entertainment’. But, as the research shows, Education and Entertainment are not polar opposites!

Entertainment is another word that we need to be careful of, however: it’s not a word that visitors often spontaneously offer up to describe their experience. I’ve read other research (not all of it published) which shows that ‘enjoyment’ is a word that comes up more often.

Either way, when you look at visitor learning in the museum as a function of their stated motivation for visiting, both ‘entertainment’ and ‘education’ motivations are good indicators of learning. That is, those that say they come for enjoyment are just as likely to learn something as those that say they’ve specifically come to learn (e.g.Falk et al, 1998).

So people might come to the museum as some gentle exercise for the mind, considering it an enjoyable way of spending their leisure time, in a similar way that a walk along the waterfront is an enjoyable way to get some exercise for the body. They may not even consider it learning, especially if they define ‘learning’ in terms of being drilled and tested as in formal education. But from a museum’s point of view, learning is exactly what it is.

Yet another reason we need to mind our language.



Falk, J., Moussouri, T. and Coulson, D. (1998) The Effect of Visitors’ Agendas on Museum Learning. Curator, vol 41, no 2, 106-120.

Packer, J (2006). Learning for Fun: The Unique Contribution of Educational Leisure Experiences. Curator vol 49 Issue 3, 329-344

Gone to GoMA

While I was in Brisbane last week, I was surprised to learn that I was sharing a city with Australia’s most visited museum in 2010: the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), twin museums which together drew crowds of some 1.8 million visitors last year.

Once I found that out, I had to drop by and see what all the fuss was about. GoMA in particular came highly recommended, with its 21st Century: Art in the First Decade Exhibition which dominated the museum’s three (I think!) vast levels.

Rather than give a comprehensive review of such an exhibition (when others can do it far better than me), I thought I’d just take the chance to share some images and general observations.

View of the entrance lobby: the space immediately opens up across multiple storeys, feeling bright and open but also dramatic. The display on the right hand side is a wallpaper made up of NASDAQ figures, and is part of a piece making commentary about the Global Financial Crisis. Beyond are twin slides - and you ask yourself: could I really ride these?? This is an art gallery here!! (You can; but I didn't)

First off, the fact that I can share images at all is probably worthy of a comment in itself: art galleries in particular are often loath to allow photography (usually for copyright or conservation reasons). This might be understandable, but also confers a type of ‘hands-off’ reverence to the experience.

As a society, I think we’re becoming more accustomed to documenting and sharing our experiences through photos via social media and other networks; this ability to share becomes often becomes an integral part of the experience itself. I wonder if this relatively permissive attitude to photography is a contributing factor to making the museum feel more open and welcoming, and consequently appealing to a different type of audience (I think I saw more teenagers in the space of one afternoon than I’ve seen in all my other previous art gallery visits put together – and no they didn’t look like a school group).

Teenage girls at a display which allowed visitors to apply bindis to themselves

Another thing which was unusual in the context of an art gallery: queues. While queues to enter a whole exhibition are common enough, these were queues to see particular exhibits or take part in certain experiences which were only available to small groups of visitors at a time.

I’m usually a studious avoider of queues – probably a sign of an impatient temperament – but since I was on no fixed timetable and was feeling perfectly content to happily wander and lose myself amongst the displays, I did something I almost NEVER do: join a queue when I don’t know what it’s for:


Almost alone in the centre of a large gallery, the brilliantly lit spheres are surrounding a reflective black box that is almost lost in the darkened room; it makes a kind of infinity mirror for the spheres surrounding it. Notice the queue lining the far wall.

The queue was to enter the box in the middle of the room (4 at a time) which closed and surrounded you in a reflective UV space:

The view from inside the box: the floor is a small peninsula surrounded by a layer of water. The UV reflective (ping pong?) balls are suspended by fishing wire.

This was just one of several immersive exhibits, for instance the ‘swimming pool’ which was more than it first seemed:

School children at the bottom of the pool. . . .?
The view from the other side: the water is only an inch or two deep and the rest of the pool is accessed by an almost secretive rear entrance.

As well as the room filled with balloons:


The Balloon Room, or to give it its proper name: Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple) by Martin Creed

This one in particular got me thinking about the blurred boundaries between interactive science and interactive art (in many cases, it’s all in the interpretation). I happened to overhear a young girl say as she left the room: “you could really feel the static electricity in there”, thus spontaneously articulating something which science-based balloon shows have long demonstrated (and may she’s seen that before and made the connection?)

Overall, these exhibits created a sense of fun and delight which you seldom see in the hallowed ground of the art gallery, and in some ways reminded me of the spirit of the science centre. This creates its own challenges – art isn’t made to be bulletproof the same way interactive exhibits are – as was demonstrated by this exhibt made from plastic bags, and which school children couldn’t resist getting under:

The school children loved getting under this installation and pretend to be holding it up while one of their friends took a photograph

But this was one of the few exhibits I saw which was keeping the security guards busy as they tried to direct the enthusiasm of the school kids into non-destructive outlets.

Not all exhibits allowed photography, but I’ll mention just one of these: From here to ear by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. This installation contained a couple of dozen live finches in a room which incorporated a series of perch structures made from wood, coathangers, harpsichord strings and a sound system. It’s a bit hard to describe but here’s the label which was at the entry to the exhibit:

And that label leads me to my final observation: the technology side of things. The whole museum had free wi-fi access and several exhibits were accompanied by QR codes (like the example above) which allowed you to access podcasts and short movies about particular works. Before this exhibition, I’d never actually got around to experimenting with QR codes. But thanks to the available wi-fi, I managed to download a QR reading app and found it very easy to use. This options also gives you the opportunity to save materials on your phone for future reference.

The 21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition closes on April 26. While I wasn’t sure which exhibits were part of that particular exhibition and which might be there on a more permanent basis, I’ll definitely want to visit GoMA again for a second look next time I’m in Brisbane.


It’s the way they make us feel

Things have been quiet here for a few weeks as all my writing energies have gone into producing a chunk of my literature review for my PhD. The good news is that my supervisors think it’s a good start!

So out of all the research and musings I’ve read so far, what’s coming out as the main themes worth exploring in my own research?  What’s struck me so far is the importance of understanding the museum experience from a psychological perspective, in particular the emotional or affective dimension. In other words, it’s not just what museums have to show or to tell, it’s how they make us feel.

People visit museums for all sorts of reasons. Other people don’t visit for all sorts of other reasons. Peel back some of these reasons and you find it’s more about how the museum communicates with us on an emotional level: do we find it relaxing or exhausting? Exhilirating or baffling? Friendly or exclusive? Exploratory or didactic?

Following from this, my interest is how the design of museums (architecturally as well as within different exhibitions) sets up some of these emotional responses, and thus creating an internal mindset well before we’ve had a chance to figure out what the museum is all about on a cognitive, content-centred level.

This perspective creates interesting new territory for visitor research, and an area where we can challenge accusations of ‘dumbing down’ in response to focus groups and front end evaluation, for instance the recent “nastygram” the NY Times gave the Brooklyn Museum.

That post (from the Asking Audiences blog) neatly summarises how focusing on the purely fact-based aspects of an exhibition can have us miss the point:

. . . we’re starting with a narrowly cognitive, educative purpose in mind. We’re interested in what visitors know about [a subject] rather than (for example) what they feel, what they wish, what they fear, what they find beautiful, what they find sad. We’re looking at a single, isolated aspect of human connection to the material. It’s not necessarily the most interesting aspect, but it’s the one that museums, as Enlightenment institutions, have traditionally cared about most.

Based on what I’ve seen in the most recent museum research, the shift from testing facts to exploring feelings already underway. And it’s an area I hope to contribute to.