Recommended: Exhibit Files

Exhibit Files is a website designed for exhibition designers and developers to share their experiences, mostly though posting case studies of exhibition projects they’ve worked on, or reviews of exhibitions they’ve seen.

It’s been running for about 4 or 5 years now, and while originally there was a strong science centre focus (it was developed under the auspices of the Association of Science-Technology Centers or ASTC), there are now case studies and reviews of a range of different exhibit types. For instance, I recently added a version of my Saatchi Gallery review on the site.

There are nearly 400 case studies and exhibition reviews on Exhibit Files to date. Anyone can register and add their own case studies and reviews to the collection. The case studies are particularly helpful as it’s a rare forum for exhibition developers to share the lessons they’ve learned from past projects (with the hope that others won’t make the same mistakes!). The reviews are also a great armchair ride of exhibitions from around the world, that we’re unlikely to all get a chance to see.

To the exhibition developers among you, I encourage you to sign up and share your expertise and experiences.

Review: Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide

A couple of weeks ago I finally made the time to check out the Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The Art Gallery has turned over some 70% of its total exhibition space to the display of items from the famous (infamous?) Saatchi Gallery in London.

I’m not going to pretend to know or understand anything about contemporary art – I’m not sure if ‘understanding’ is even the point of the particularly iconoclastic and challenging brand of art that Saatchi seemingly favours – so I’m not going to contribute to the ongoing ‘is this really art?’ debate that surrounds these kinds of works.  Rather, I’ll share some general impressions and pieces I found interesting.

Firstly, particularly given my recent post on the issue, I should observe that there were no obvious restrictions on photography without flash, making experiences like this possible:

Photography seemingly *is* allowed when it's contemporary art on display. This makes me seriously question the logic of "copyright" claimed by other museums. If it's not an issue for works where the artist is still living, why is it an issue for the old masters?

I don’t go to contemporary art exhibitions expecting an overall theme or ‘interpretive message’ to emerge as I might expect at a science or history exhibition. But one thing I did notice about a lot of the art on display was that it seemed to be as much about the process of making art as it was about the finished piece itself. This is exemplified by Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s three works Up, Down and Oh.

Leite’s work “Oh”

The label for “Oh” describes the painstaking process of creating the clay mould for the balloon structure:

A similar process was used to create the works “Up” and “Down” by hand-digging into a large block of clay, either from the bottom up or top down, and then casting the form created in plaster. “Up” is black to represent the increasing darkness of boring up into the clay block. “Down” in particular shows numerous indentations from the artists hands and knees as she excavates the clay.

"Up" (left) and "Down" (right)

Probably one of the most well known and controversial works on display was “My Bed” by Tracy Emin. I was living in the UK the year this work was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and I remember the media and political outcry it caused at the time.

“My bed” by Tracy Emin

While I’d seen many pictures, descriptions and criticisms of the work before (so its contents were no surprise), the label accompanying the work gave me a new insight: apparently, the idea of the piece came about after Emin (legendary for her hard living) woke up after a two-day drinking bender, feeling lucky to be alive after all she had drunk. Looking at the squalor of her room, it occurred to her that, had she died, this would have been the setting her body would have been found in. This piece of back story made me look at the work with fresh eyes as a statement on mortality and the legacy we leave.

On reflection though, I think my favourite work in the exhibition is one I almost missed – Tessa Farmer’s “Swarm”. At first glance, it just looks like a display case suspended with dead insects, and I almost walked straight past thinking that was all there was to it:

"Swarm" by Tessa Farmer (photo from

However, while in one sense it is indeed a case of dead insects, Farmer has used insect parts to create amazingly intricate sculptures of fairy-like creatures waging battle:

Close-up of 'swarm' showing the army of creatures made from dessicated insect parts.

I could have spent ages looking at all the different pieces and their amazing attention to detail. Although this was getting towards the end of my visit and by this stage my feet were killing me.

This brings me to some final comments about the design and overall experience of the space – the works were well-spaced out, allowing each its own space to ‘breathe’ and allowing viewing from multiple vantage points. There are apparently something like 120 pieces on display, spread over what I’d guess to be at least 2000-3000 square metres of gallery space. However there was precious little seating provided over this large area (I only remember seeing one seating unit), hence my aching feet towards the end.

My other issue is that I could have very easily have missed half of the exhibition: it is spread over two levels, one that is accessed via the main entrance on North Terrace, and another level two floors below (the middle floor is the rear access to the Gallery and includes the cafe and shop). I only realised there was more to see when I joined a guided tour of the exhibition after I thought I’d already ‘seen everything’ and was just curious about what the tour guide would have to say. The two parts of the exhibition were linked by a staircase where there were temporary signs that indicated you needed a ticket to enter. However there was nothing on these signs to suggest that the exhibition continued on another level. Had I decided to bypass the shop or cafe and go back the way I came in, I could have missed the lower level completely.

Museum and Gallery Visits in England

Taking Part, which has been run since 2005, collects data about participation in sport, the arts, heritage, libraries, museums and galleries from adults and children (aged 5-15) in England. The figures show that visiting to museums and galleries is on a steady upward trend, with the increase in visitation / decline in non-visitation being statistically significant:

Trends in the proportion of adults in England who have visited a museum or gallery in the previous 12 months (source: Taking Part survey - .xls file available on website)

So, somewhere in the region of 42-46% of adults in England visit a museum or gallery at least once in a given year (and this doesn’t include Heritage sites, which are visited at least once a year by a whopping 70% of English adults).

This fairly steady overall picture conceals considerable variation by geography, demographics and socioeconomic status:

Age and geographic breakdown of museum and gallery participation rates, for the earliest and latest years available (full data set is annual). Figures in bold represent a significant change from 2005-6. (Source: Taking Part statistical worksheet (Museums))

Age and gender breakdowns are pretty self-explanatory, and broadly reflect Australian trends (although ABS uses slightly different age categories). London residents are the most likely to visit museums while those in the East Midlands (which incorporates my English ‘hometown’ of Leicester) are the least likely in 2010-11. Interestingly, the East Midlands is the only region to see a fall in participation rates from 2005-6, albeit not a significant drop. It would be interesting to see how the different regional increases correspond to the opening / refurbishment of museums across England over the past few years.

Demographic and socioeconomic data show that museum and gallery visitors are still disproportionately white, wealthy and able-bodied:

Demographic and socioeconomic breakdown of museum and gallery participation rates, for the earliest and latest years available (full data set is annual). Figures in bold represent a significant change from 2005-6. (Source: Taking Part statistical worksheet (Museums))

Participation rates among lower socioeconomic groups, ethnic minorities, disabled people and people of non-Christian religions are all on the increase, which will be encouraging news for all those who have put so much effort into social inclusion projects in museums over the past decade or so. However, given the increases in participation across-the-board, it’s not clear whether there is any progress being made in closing long-standing cultural gaps.



NB: I tried to do a compare-and-contrast between the Taking Part report and the Attendance at Cultural Venues statistics published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but I ended up tying myself in knots. First off, the ABS report cites participation rates for Art Galleries and Museums separately (with each being in the low-mid 20% range – see here for more details). Where a combined rate is given, it appears that the figure has been reached by simply adding Museum and Gallery figures together (See for instance Table 8.1 in the ABS report (PDF), despite saying in the explanatory notes that the true proportion will be less than the sum of Museums + Galleries due to overlap between the visitor populations of each – as you’d expect. I’m actually wondering whether the wrong numbers were published in the report!). Either way, I suspect the 46-52% annual participation rates cited by ABS are an overestimate.


Statistical snapshot of European Museums

Thanks to the ICOM group on Linked In, I recently found out about EGMUS: the European Group on Museum Statistics. The group exists to collect and publish comparable statistical data from 27 European countries. I’ve pulled out some of the statistics I thought of particular interest, but there are also statistics for funding, staffing and management (although these data sets look fairly incomplete at this stage).

The overall picture looks like this:

The countries in the EGMUS sample, the year the data for each country was collected, and number of museums in each country. (Those in red have some consistency issues which will become clear later)

Most European museums are open to the public for at least 200 days a year (a fair criterion for considering a museum to be a ‘public’ institution compared to a facility primarily for specialists or researchers). The major outlier is Switzerland at 14%, although Germany too has a fairly low proportion of ‘public’ museums by this measure.

Some (not all) countries have broken down their museums by type:

Breakdown of European museums by type. Figures in red are those with clear inconsistencies with the 'total museums' figure listed above. The reason for this discrepancy is unclear from the data.

Differences between the respective countries are clearer when the data are presented graphically:

European museums by country and type. Many countries have almost (or actually) exclusively Art, Archaeology and History museums. Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg are the only ones to have mostly Science, Technology and Ethnology museums.

‘Art, Archaeology and History’ is quite a broad definition; probably too broad to give any detailed comparison between countries. Putting ‘ethnology’ in with science and technology also seems a bit weird to me and I wonder what the reasoning is for this.

It’s hard to compare to the Australian statistics, which use quite different definitions – Art Galleries (14%), Social History (60%), Historic Properties (21%), Natural, Science and Other (5%). (From ABS figures summarised in a previous blog post). However, I’d imagine that by the European definition most of Australia’s museums would also fall into the ‘Art, History and Archaeology’ category too.

The EGMUS figures also look at the number of visits per country and (on average) per museum:

Total and average number of visits to European museums. NB: Some of these are combined from multiple tables. Figures in blue are not directly cited in the EGMUS tables but were derived from other data provided. Figures in red showed internal inconsistencies in the are published data (beyond a 5-10% margin of error).

The clear outlier here is Switzerland, and I’m not sure if this is a typographical error or is in some way related to the very low proportion of museums that are open for more than 200 days a year. Even ignoring Switzerland, however, there are still considerable differences in the number of museums per head of population between European countries (which don’t seem to relate to geographical or socioeconomic differences between countries in any obvious way).

A lower proportion of visits to European museums are free compared to Australia, where an average of 68% of visits are free entry. Per-capita number of visits is comparable, however, with my back-of-the-envelope calculation for an Australian figure (taking ABS visitor stats cited above and assuming an Australian population of 22 million) being just shy of 140,000 visits per 100,000 inhabitants, with an average of roughly 26,000 visits per museum.