With Instagram turning into an online-curated gallery and the Internet providing a vast space for artwork to be shared and viewed, what part does the modern museum play? For me, I have always felt as though museums are still as popular and in demand as before, and that the rise of social media and the digital age merely propels them further. After all, the online-gallery becomes minute when compared to the collections stored and preserved for thousands of years and all the careful work that has gone into keeping them safe.
However, to validate this, I spent the weekend visiting multiple museums in London and assessed their relevance in our modern day. Crowds swarmed, queues gathered, and lines for exhibitions seemed to stretch from one end of the museum to the other. Judging on initial head count, there didn’t seem to be any decline in popularity. So, while visiting I spoke with many people in the ‘know’ to get their thoughts. “Whilst the global reach of the Internet is a great way of sharing art with online audiences, I think the modern museum offers much more than just the visual experience gained through accessing art via digital content,” explains Alison Nicholson, Digital Communications and Fundraising Officer at The Bowes Museum.
The question remains, though, as to whether or not museums see fewer visitors year-on-year and whether their future is threatened by the rise of the Internet. After all, museums themselves have begun to use social media to target different audiences. Murray MacKay, Public Relations Officer at the National History Museum, told me that they were “not suffering a drop in visitor numbers” but actually, “experiencing the opposite, alongside the majority of London cultural venues.” It would seem that in fact, the rapid onset of the digital age has created a culture of social sharing that benefits museums and has not seen consumer’s simply retreat to their phones or laptops for information.
Indeed, it is true that any information you might require can be found digitally and it is the case with many museums that they actively cater for this with online libraries and databases. “Engagement across digital platforms is very important to us as an institution,” explained Mackay. This is evident at the Natural History Museum with online information appealing to an audience ranging from casual viewers and children, to seasoned researchers looking to access a specific collection.
Yet, with such access at our fingertips, what continues to draw people to the museums themselves? There is indeed a certain appeal that they retain that cannot be replicated digitally. These days, it seems the majority of museums base their ethos and design on one crucial element - the experience. From the moment you step through the door, your journey through the museum is tailored to ensure you have a memorable encounter.
Everything from the placement of exhibitions, visual and audio additions and other sensory-enhancing features, are all combined to enrich your time at the site. Nicholson summed this up nicely, telling me, “Visiting a museum can provide discussions with curators, other visitors, memories and interaction with the objects such as handling objects, smells and sound.” Clearly the allure of such unique activities is still the predominant reason for why droves of people pile through the door, and the increased accessibility of social media has provided a platform on which visitors can promote and globalise these experiences.
Fashion seems to be a distinctive presence in the world of the museum - for example, the ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ exhibition, which saw people flocking to the ticket desk at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, followed by the gift-shop. Merchandise ranging from McQueen tote bags, to limited edition hardback copies of his work, to holographic portraits of the designer, illustrates how the V&A is using the pull-factor of goodies, branding and marketing to bring about a rise in visitor numbers. It is therefore unsurprising that after queuing for three hours to view the exhibition, you are informed that sketching and taking photos are strictly banned. No online or self-curated gallery here.
A museum spokesperson from the Victoria and Albert museum explains why visiting in person is so important. “Viewing ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ in person provides an opportunity to experience the extraordinary work of Alexander Lee McQueen in a setting that captures the essence of his provocative, dramatic and extravagant catwalk presentations. The gallery is designed as a physical viewing experience and makes use of music and film.” Having recently announced that the exhibition is the “V&A’s most visited exhibition with 493,043 people seeing it in total during its 21-week run, the museum has undoubtedly challenged the presence of the online-curated gallery.
The V&A’s spokesperson further explained that online content does hold benefits though, albeit in other ways. It “can offer an exciting way for visitors who are not able to attend in person to explore an exhibition or indeed further enhance the subject following a visit. The V&A’s digital initiative ‘The Museum of Savage Beauty’ explores hidden stories and craftsmanship behind some of the objects in the exhibition and allows viewers to view them in a different format. Some 2.95 million people have viewed the exhibition web pages and the specially commissioned interactive web feature ‘The Museum of Savage Beauty’, which provides an insight into the techniques, inspiration and stories behind some objects has been visited 191,000 times. Accompanying exhibition films, hosted on YouTube have been viewed 350,000 times.”
Meanwhile, The ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal’ exhibition in Durham’s Bowes Museum, on show from 11 July – 25 October 2015, is another huge fashion exhibition and features iconic pieces from the designer’s collection, some of which have not been seen for a few decades. Nicholson talks about fashion and its appeal, explaining that the exhibition presents the public with “a one-off chance to see original sketches, archive material and dresses made by the iconic designer up close.” The authenticity of the works are then highlighted by an experience, which is very “theatrical and moving”, something that Nicholson believes “couldn’t be achieved by an online post”.
The modern museum might be expected to quiver as social media exhibitions begin to quench the thirst of a certain section of the public, but it is only by visiting the highly valued institutions that we can achieve the full desired experience of what came before and what is yet to come. I agree with Nicholson that it is not necessary to target the pull-factor of the online-curated gallery for, in many ways, they come hand-in-hand – “there is room for both in modern society and both can work together to complement access to art for all”. The V&A also wishes for this mutually beneficial relationship: “We hope people explore and use our content in their own ‘galleries’ and social spaces.”
Words: Marianna Mukhametzyanova
Image source: The Bowes Museum / The V&A / National History Museum