Friday, 20 February 2015

Visitor numbers and Faustian bargains

Picture: Trip Advisor
England's top museums had nearly two million more visits this year, according to the latest 'performance indicators', with nearly seven million visits to the British Museum and almost six million to the National Gallery. 

The BBC frets that the rise is driven by foreign visitors; UK visits are down significantly (a fifth since 2008/9 at the NG and Tate). I think the decline in domestic visits is partly a corollary of increased absolute numbers. As museums get more overcrowded, the experience gets worse. Major museums are no longer places to return again and again for pleasure; they are places where you must push through a scrum to get a quick glance at the obligatory '20 masterpieces' so you can tick it off the list of sights and move on. It's become a pretty miserable experience, so I can see why people put off visiting and return less often. I used to go the NG every couple of weeks, but I've only been twice in the months since photography has been permitted. 

As the world's population grows and gets richer, the problem is getting worse. Dozens of the greatest masterpieces are now almost impossible to see. But visitor numbers are an easily quantified 'performance indicator',  and everyone pays obeisance to the gods of access and inclusion, so no one wants to talk about it. The global population is about seven billion. If we assume seventy sentient years and one visit per person per lifetime, that implies visits to the world's greatest museums will rise to a hundred million (about a fifteen fold increase for the busiest English museums). However you play with the numbers, a bigger and richer population with increased leisure time and disposable income will mean increased museum visits. And it will be simply impossible for everyone to enjoy equal access. 

No one wants to confront the problem directly, because none of the solutions are palatable. But solutions are being developed by default, and without debate, and they are often the least palatable. In Italy many attractions are now time-limited. You can have just fifteen minutes in the Brancacci Chapel, one of the greatest masterpieces that inaugurated Renaissance painting. Close and careful study will be prohibited; you can only have a quick glance.  

In the UK and the US the solution is that only those who can afford to pay can see the art. In the UK it looks like the opposite - admission remains free. But museums are bifurcating visits between a mass-market 'experience' where visitor numbers are pursued above all else, and a luxury experience for the elite. We can see it most clearly at the National Gallery. They have worsened the mass experience, permitting photography and promoting selfies. The model is a once-only box ticking experience, quick snap in front of Sunflowers and move along for the next person. But at the same time, they have made the gallery available for evening hire for the first time. Precisely because the mass experience is getting worse, the elite private views become a more valuable commodity, and only the very rich get to see anything. There was rightly an outcry when Sistine Chapel was rented out for a private porsche tour, but the NG's change has gone largely unremarked and even welcomed in some quarters.

I don't have a good answer to the problem of overcrowding, but if we continue to ignore it and hope it goes away we will be letting great art become the exclusive property of the very rich. Fewer people will develop a serious interest in art because it will be harder and harder to see it, and the experience will be worse and worse - as we're seeing at the NG and Tate. Answers on a postcard please. 


  1. Answer - attempt to personally avoid the problem.
    I would appreciate it if you had any personal suggestions of a church or two in Florence (and Siena?) where one could have a rather longer look, and avoid the crowds. On condition of secrecy, of course.
    Delighted to read the return of the blog!

    1. Thank you! In my experience, Siena is fairly quiet. The Duomo gets crowds, and the museum has big tour groups looking at the Maesta, but if you can work around the groups it's not bad. The fabulous Pinacoteca Nazionale is often almost empty. Florence is harder, even outside tourist season. But anywhere a bit further out can be fine. Again, it tends to be tour groups rather than permanent crowds. Even the Brancacci Chapel can be reasonably quiet. The Ospedali degli Innocenti is good too. I recommend this guidebook, which is strong on art and includes all the out-of-the-way places:

    2. Many thanks. It seems that, after one's first visit (where it would be rather churlish to avoid the big stops), the main problem is not so much the crowds as making sense of the multiplicity of other options.