News programmes, not feature films, Or: Should we ditch permanent exhibitions?

I was quite intrigued by the lead article in the current edition of the Museums Journal [1].  In essence, the article asks whether we should move away from permanent exhibitions, using the number of visitors, and of repeat visits in particular, as the yardstick by which to measure value for money when it comes to investing in exhibitions.  At our museums service we’re currently looking at relocating and redeveloping one of our museums, so the question is hot on my mind.

The Museum Association’s own standpoint seems quite clear.  Their Head of Policy and Communications, Maurice Davies, compares current permanent exhibitions to ‘feature films’, suggesting that what museums should produce instead is news programmes.  The implication is that temporary exhibitions are the way to go: Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s manager Neil Ballantyne feels that the public really only register temporary exhibitions and full-blown gallery changes, while Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Collection, places his bets with the rapid advances of technology, which in his opinion will ‘make the delineation between permanent and temporary displays obsolete’ – presumably because content would be fluid and to a large extent selected by the user (think library reading room).

The article doesn’t sway me in favour of ditching permanent exhibitions though, and here is why. Firstly, the article doesn’t refer to any visitor research that examines the relationship between repeat visits and temporary/permanent exhibitions.  There are plenty of ‘professional’ opinions offered on the matter, but no one seems to have asked the visitors themselves.  This suggests the kind of patronizing attitude that defined museums a hundred years ago, where objects had value simply because the professionals said so, and where visitors had to contend themselves with whatever mode of consumption the professionals allowed.

As chance would have it, the day after I read the article, I came across a reference to a visitor survey done in the East Midlands in 1994/5 that found that changing exhibitions would only encourage 9% of visitors to return [2]. In contrast, children’s activities would bring 14% of visitors back.  This highlights that the issue is much more complex than permanent vs temporary exhibition, and yet the article doesn’t explore what else – if anything – is offered in museums.  There is one reference to events, but it is immediately undermined by the statement that ‘we are not a theatre’.

This highlights another concern that I have about the article: its tone is still dominated by ‘objects’ and ‘communicating history’.  I’m not getting the sense that museums have really engaged with key concepts of our times: the heritage autonomy of individuals, the invalidity of the idea of intrinsic value of objects, stakeholder engagement, and visitor creator-ship. There is a lot of talk about technology and self-curation, but what’s presented as the answer to all our permanent exhibition issues still confines visitors to rearranging content prepared for them by the professionals.  This is neither participation, nor co-creation, nor does it step away from the one idea that actually may be ‘outmoded’: that museums are about the presentation of objects, permanently or otherwise.

And finally, as Jonathan Griffin, director of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall rightly points out: there is also the matter of the ‘big picture’ or, as a lady at one of our museum’s recent stakeholder engagement events said, the ‘core story’ that she wants to find out about.  You simply cannot tell that story in ever-changing news flashes.  The story doesn’t change: it is the essence that visitors come for.

So what am I proposing for our museum redevelopment?  Well, first of all, we’re doing a lot of visitor surveys and public engagement work.  I definitely want us to have a permanent exhibition, but one that is based on the stories that are truly important to residents and visitors.  I also want our permanent exhibition to offer plenty of opportunities for visitors to participate (not just interact!), comment, and contribute.  And we will have an on-going programme of interventions, activities, and events inside and outside of the museum to share that core story, and to transform the museum into an intrinsic part of the social fabric of our local community.  But we will also have a reasonably sized temporary exhibition space, alongside spaces for doing projects and events.  At the heart of this will not be the objects in our collection, but the stories that make our community [3].


[1] Rob Sharp, Flexible Thinking: Should museums and galleries be looking at radical new ways to present their permanent exhibitions? Museums Journal, October 2012, pp. 24-29

[2] Black, G., 2005. The Engaging Museum.  Developing Museums for visitor involvement. London and New York: Routledge, p. 23

[3] This particular museum is the district museum, but the concept also applies to our Roman museum – it’s not the archaeological artefacts that will take centre stage in the future, but the stories that these artefacts can help us to tell.

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