“What is the purpose of a museum?” During our Global Explorer Program travel to London, this question plagued our minds continuously. Every museum had a common managial strategy style like free admissions to widen public accessibility, but that’s not all. Each museum had various means of interacting with the public and exhibiting temporary and permanent exhibitions. Regardless, could visitors truly recognize the strategies? When travelling abroad, visiting popular museums is often considered a tourist’s activity much like going to a historic site or festival. The Sookmyung Times (SMT) and the Sookmyung Weekly interviewed together as a collaboration the Natural History Museum speaking on behalf of museums in London. We had the opportunity to sit down with Jan English (JAN) and Louise Fitton (LOUISE), Heads of the Touring Exhibitions Department and Content Development Department respectively, to ask about topics from exhibition managements to their opinions on recent issues regarding museums as a tourist attraction.
SMT What difference is there between a temporary exhibition compared to a permanent exhibition?
JAN Temporary exhibitions allow you to highlight something new that’s happening. It [the exhibit] could be because we [the museum] want to highlight something happening in current research, or something from an international partnership with a country that might be of interest to people.
LOUISE We [the curators] did an experiment, which is probably too strong a word. We developed an exhibition all about the world of animal sex. We were thinking “It’s going to be rather risky.” With all of our [the museum’s] exhibitions, we do lots of market testing and launch focus groups. With Sexual Nature [temporary exhibition], it was the cultured pleasure seeker that we were wanting to target. The team kind of comes up with a fictional character—let’s say his name is Graham, he lives in trendy South London, he prefers a pub lunch then to booze in the evening—so there’s a real kind of emphasis on getting to know an audience before embarking on an exhibition.
JAN The “Sexual Nature” exhibition was a hit with all the media coverage we had. We actually won Best Temporary Exhibition Award at the Museums + Heritage 2013 Awards Ceremony. Our target age group was 18 to 25 year old young adults, and 80% of the visitors were among that age group. So for us, that was a big success, to be able to reach out to that community.
SMT What kinds of programs are there for young adults and children, and what positive results can the museum gain?
LOUISE We have the “Nature Live” program, where curators are interviewed in a kind of reportage atmosphere. The young visitors ask questions. The curators always have specimens with them at hand, so visitors can come up to the front [stage], to have one to one contact. As for university students, we have one from Kings University who is in her second year of a full time PhD studies. She is currently looking at the Darwin Center, examining how the engagement of scientists within the Attenborough studio performs Nature Live events and what impact that has on the visitors.
JAN We also have self-guided tours, so students can come up to the information desk and pick up a backpack with activities in it. They can explore the museum with an activity guide that explains how to get around and the things they can discover. And I think there are a few goals to all of these programs. One is that you [museums] want people to become scientists. You want to inspire young students to understand what science is about. So by doing these activities, someone who may not have had any experience with science, will discover actually it’s something that is very interesting to pursue. The other aspect is, for people who come here young, it’s kind of an iconic institution so they’ll never forget their experience.
LOUISE There is also the need to invest in our younger audience because, in a sense, they are the visitors of the future. So we’re [curators] wanting this to be not their only visit, but for them to become regular visitors throughout their lifetime. We’re a cultural institution, and we’re wanting them to return.
SMT The Natural History Museum doesn’t charge an entrance fee. What is the intention or goal for doing so?
JAN It’s actually a government mandate, so it’s not a decision that was made at the Natural History Museum. We are a public institution, so we do receive government funding. So I think there is this kind of idea within the United Kingdom that you [general thought] want as many people as possible to come in museums and see the national collections. Actually, the number of visitors has increased dramatically since we stopped charging a fee.
LOUISE And it’s great that we’re free because it widens accessibility. I’ve got two children, and when I think about having a day out in the center of London, I think about the expense of doing it as well, so museums for a family to visit if it’s free is fantastic. And especially for the young families, they’ve walked into the museum for free, they had a free day of things they’d not normally been able to do, they feel they can spend a bit of money at the shop or take everyone for lunch. And I think that if it was paid entry, we might actually see an adverse effect on the dispense for those commercial elements.
SMT When it comes to large museums, tourists generally visit them for their fame. Could you give us your thoughts on this?
LOUISE We’ve found out this year that about half of our visitors are from overseas, which is absolutely fantastic. And as you’re saying, are they coming just so that they have that tick box that “I’ve been there.” Fine, if that brings them to the door, absolutely fine. What we need to make sure is that we’re giving them a really good quality experience while they’re here. And I think the focus on developing our permanent galleries will make sure that even though they don’t go on to pay for a temporary exhibition, the quality of experience that they’re getting, because they’ve just arrived anyway, is memorable and it will encourage them to return and that more importantly that they have a really good experience whilst visiting here.
JAN Once people come to the door, we [the museum] get an opportunity to highlight something that we want to share. It’s not just about the number of visitors coming and the quality, but it’s also the content and the message. So even if they just come for half an hour, it’s a success in a sense. But, of course, there is an effort to make people stay longer. It doesn’t matter what’s inspiring people to get here, they will come away with a certain understanding of what the museum is all about.