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The Overcrowding of Cultural Spaces
Finding Breathing Room
The Surprising Situation
Most event planners and cultural managers worry about audience attendance and public awareness for their works and events. Museums are trying to reach a larger audience. Galleries need foot traffic. But what happens when we face the opposite problem: overcrowding?
I was discussing my recent trip to the Amalfi Coast with a friend. I told her that I expected to see the colorful buildings stacked on the hillside as we drove along the sea. I pictured walking through the streets of Positano, Sorrento, and Amalfi looking in shop windows, having lunch al fresco, and looking out onto the Tyrrhenian Sea while sipping my caffè.
None of that happened.
Despite visiting in shoulder season, the region was uncomfortably overcrowded. Long delays for traffic prevented us from arriving on time and pedestrians pushed through the narrow streets. I wanted to look around and enjoy the moment and take in the view. But once you were moving along a street, you had to keep going. Anyone who stopped to take a photo was either bumped into or blocked everyone else from moving. Perhaps we weren’t far enough removed from the high season. Perhaps post-Covid travel urges are still in full force.
And then we would step into an art gallery and it was calm. We could breathe. It was quiet for a moment. We could take our time looking at the art, backing up to take in the works, turn around and see all sides of a statue, and discuss our thoughts in a normal tone of voice. Sometimes the assistants would engage with us, and sometimes not. But we were present- until we stepped back outside to make our way to the next sight- and became part of the swarming crowd.
My friend was in Paris this summer. She said the same was true of the museums there. Masses of people filled the popular wings of the Instagrammable places with the renowned masterpieces. She showed me a photo of the backs of hundreds of visitors with picture frames in the distance lining the tops of their heads, the artwork out of view entirely.
Was it their once-in-a-lifetime time to be in the presence of a moving painting that they’ve studied and admired and longed to see in person? Or were they on a tour of 50 people literally just off the bus being led by a microphone-wearing, flag-wielding licensed guide? Or possibly a student group with a professor on a fieldtrip they should never forget? Perhaps they were just regular folks like you and me who followed the list of “Top Ten Must-See” sights. There’s nothing wrong with any of those people. Indeed, masterpieces should be enjoyed by all.
But there has to be a better way to support the arts, teach art history, support sustainable tourism, ensure cultural institutions get the right amount of foot traffic and revenue, and support the economy of the arts.
Navigating Challenges: Long Lines, Wayfinding, and Crowds in Cultural Spaces
Long ticket lines mean good foot traffic for the museum and people getting to experience the showcase or exhibit. But no one likes to wait in line- you get hot (or cold or rained on), your legs tire out (or you may be physically unable to endure the wait), children get restless, and you waste your precious time. It’s a nightmare to see others holding up the process because they’re looking for their identification that they didn’t know they’d need to show, or being surprised by a security check and fumbling with your belongings as they spill onto a conveyor belt, or blocking the entry door as they figure out which way to go.
Fortunately, most events and institutions have the ability to purchase tickets online before a visit or ticket kiosks (with clear instructions in multiple languages) at the entryway. Additionally, some places have a staff member directing queue traffic and answering questions. No matter the alternatives to standing in line, institutions need clear signage on the entry process.
Finding Your Way
Speaking of confusion and clarity, Arts and Culture Managers should put a lot more emphasis on solving wayfinding issues. Each venue is different and most visitors are first-time attendees. Additionally, exhibits change, exciting things are going on, and large groups can block the small signs with small print. I often find signs describing an artwork to be below eyeline, in small font, in a single language, and not available orally, digitally, or in braille.
However, I visited the Pinacoteca di Brera this year and much to my delight, the signage was amazing! Not only were the museum labels clear, multilingual, and interesting. After the basic information about the work, they described the way in which the work was meant to be hung or viewed, what each of our senses could experience with this work, some background on the style or the artist, and a suggestion for how to take in the moment. It was such a great experience. I felt like I learned more there in two hours than in many of my arts classes for my master’s degree. Here’s hoping more museums take note.
Crowds and Chaos
Packed museums, disrespectful tourists in holy places, brash employees, disruptive visitors to ateliers and creative spaces make for an unpleasant experience. Tourism is on the rise globally. We are behind on ways to create sustainable tourism and decrease our climate footprint as we are blessed with more disposable income and an ability to reach places previously out of our reach or imagination. Thanks to Instagram and TikTok in everyone’s pockets, we’re excited about new cultural experiences and inflated with FOMO.
Add in extreme seasonal weather and surprise natural disasters like fires, earthquakes, and mudslides that impact every continent, and we have a challenging tourism situation. It’s one thing to be cranky from the heat and humidity in a cobblestoned foreign city, it’s another thing to be among the newly homeless as people flee for their lives after a severe natural disaster happens. Are you prepared to evacuate a museum via the emergency exit signs and winding staircases, let alone a city under siege? These things happen. Be prepared. Here are some great suggestions. Additionally, your phone (emergency features), your watch (fall detection), and other technology (tracking devices) that you already have could be prepped for your travels.
Reimagining Cultural Spaces: Opportunities for Enrichment and Engagement
We’re missing huge opportunities for cultural enrichment, ongoing patronage, and educational opportunities. (I won’t get into sustainability and cultural heritage preservation in this article, but those are deeply overlooked subjects.) What’s worth discussing right now is some easy wins museums and cultural institutions could be having right now.
Everyone wants to visit the museum at 11am and 3pm- or else exactly when I want to be there. Considering the overcrowding of museums, I wonder how families and elderly people get any quality time at cultural institutions.
Solution: Segmented hours for museums could accommodate the elderly, differently abled, school groups, young people, families, locals, or people deserving free and low-cost tickets. I’d love to have breakfast at the museum if the cafe opened early and allowed museum entry before prime time. Other people would flock to a special midnight viewing of the Mona Lisa. Let’s get creative with opening various wings or exhibits at odd times, adding themes, dress codes, after-parties, book signings, events, music, and additional goodies that would entice early and late attendance.
I don’t always have the time to do a deep dive into the exhibits and history of a museum before I go. Some visits are impromptu, and others a part of an otherwise full trip. Guided educational tours don’t sound like fun to everyone on the surface, and most are expensive, for large groups with those awful headphone boxes on a string, or don’t cover the topics I’m interested in.
Solution: Let visitors reserve a docent’s time for personal tours. This could be done with docents, art history buffs, retirees, art history students, volunteers, or professional storytellers. What do they pay museum employees? I would gladly pay one or two hours of their salary for a personal tour. It could be set up like a matching app- “Do you enjoy history? Do you want to learn about a certain artist? Do you want to see a certain section of the museum?” then charge me for their time directly so there’s no cost to the museum. When reserved ahead of time, the museum could arrange for the appropriate amount of tour guides at the right time. And since it would be done under the museum’s management, the guides would stay on message.
Alternatively, museums could hire art students or volunteers with history and art backgrounds to sit at various places around the museum with “ask me about [subject]” signs. They could even set up tablets with pre-recorded short videos explaining various artworks. This would be most helpful to me because I either lack signal strength or battery power for those downloadable museum apps. But while we’re at it- please increase the quality of those as well.
Everyone is an influencer in their world. We want to remember special moments and share our vacations and outings (heck, even our dinners). Some people do this for a living. Others do it to impress friends. I do it because I forget the name of that place I was that one time when the thing happened with the person I was with and I can’t remember the name or the location or the month it happened…but I’m desperate to remember and I start scrolling helplessly through my photos. If I’m lucky enough to find it, I remember why I didn’t post it- I take terrible selfies. Or worse, I never took a photo in the first place because it’s incredibly dangerous to give your phone to a stranger and then stand 10 feet away and smile.
Solution: Let’s encourage museums, galleries, and cultural events to have a safe photo space. This would be particularly important for places that don’t allow photography (or flash) to have one area where photos are encouraged and supported by staff- perhaps in front of an exhibit or a marquee sign or the front of the building. Let’s set up shelves where you can safely set your belongings for a minute while you pose. Let’s have a member of staff (who is photo savvy) available to direct your pose or take your photos. I’m not talking about the mandatory professional photographer that makes you pose before the green screen upon entry to your amusement park show or sky viewing platform and makes you pay $20 for your photoshopped picture at checkout. I’m talking about a young person with a fabulous Instagram account (look around, there are thousands in your city) who is hired solely to be your influencer BFF at the one spot in the museum in front of the museum sign. They could either yell “now look to the left, chin up!” or snap a photo for me. No pressure. No payment. No more double-chin selfies. It would alleviate photoshoot-style delays in the line to the top of Oia. It would appeal to a younger audience. It would help us all remember a moment in time in a special way.
Going to a museum or attending an educational and historical event is not everyone’s dream activity. But as we strive to share the world’s great arts and cultural riches with diverse crowds, young people, and those not yet fortunate enough to experience the magic of the arts, we must consider how museums and cultural institutions are presented. The offerings could be so much more than a room with old paintings (or worse, dozens of rooms with old paintings).
Solution: Education is truly absorbed when it’s exciting and interesting and memorable. I’d love to see museums hire staff that are young and extroverted to help lead not just marketing campaigns but educational programs and ancillary events. I want to see programming in diverse styles like lectures and shows and performances. I want to see music incorporated, food events, group exercises, and sensory exhibits. I expect to see events that are inclusive of different abilities, ages, sensitivities, artists, and audiences. Let’s bring these places to life.
I’ve lived in Italy this year. Next, I’m spending time in Paris. It’s been years since I’ve seen Water Lilies in person. Do I dare?