In 2021, Culture Connect collaborated with Teo, the Touring Exhibition Organisation, to undertake the first iteration of Culture Connect’s Cultural Dialogue Survey dedicated to the future of touring exhibitions, consulting those who make touring possible day-in and day-out to assess the global museum touring community’s mindset in the wake of the unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and to have an idea of how the future might look like for the touring exhibitions industry. As anticipated in this first report, touring exhibitions did indeed continue despite the challenges of lockdowns, travel bans, and growing environmental concerns. It has always been an ambition to revisit and build on this initial snapshot, to better understand the long-term impact the pandemic has had on an industry heavily relying on the mobility of people and objects. Two years on, have the 2021 trends been confirmed or are we seeing a different touring exhibition landscape emerging? What has been the real impact of the pandemic and how is the contemporary context of increased geopolitical uncertainty and growing climate emergency playing out?
The second iteration of the Cultural Dialogue Survey was therefore launched to answer these questions. The survey ran from 12 December 2022 to 10 March 2023 and received responses from colleagues from all continents and from all aspects of touring. As you will see in the report published on 16 May 2023, the result is a new snapshot of what the future might look like, taken two years after the unprecedented global pause that the COVID-19 pandemic represented. It also shows longer term trends, as we were able to compare to the results of the survey we conducted in 2021, enabling us to better understand the impact the pandemic has had on touring exhibitions across the globe.
The findings are organised around four key trends:
- A dynamic and optimistic touring community despite the ‘great COVID pause’
- A touring sector that confirms its durable international outlook
- A decline of the power of the object?
- A focus on trust and tested practices
Overall, what transpires from this snapshot is a touring exhibition community that remains optimistic and more confident in its ability to predict the future than in 2021. The post-pandemic level of touring activity does not seem to have suffered from the ‘great COVID pause’ and the sector overall appears to be even more dynamic than anticipated in 2021 with levels of hiring and sending activity greater than expected in 2021. Moreover, when considering the future, practitioners from the field are foreseeing to either maintain or even increase their level of sending or hiring on average per year.
The confirmation of the durable international outlook of the touring sector, with a continuing interest in international work, despite growing concerns regarding geopolitical instability, is also reaffirmed quite strongly and represents the second key trend of this 2023 snapshot. Indeed, the benefits of touring exhibitions in providing widened access to international cultural heritage as well as the ability to harness soft power are notably cited more often than in 2021, with the large majority of respondents believing that touring exhibitions could be a tool for ongoing cultural exchanges across borders in the complex and volatile geopolitical environment we are experiencing today.
The adaptability of touring exhibitions is, as ever, a strength of the touring exhibition model, and the community’s desire to harness touring exhibitions that are relevant and engaging to attract a diverse audience is evident. Interestingly, the sector seems to be clearly identifying the immersive dimension as a key factor for exhibition demand in the future, with a significant drop in the anticipated appetite for typically object-led exhibitions and spotlight exhibitions that feature one to five “star” objects. This third identified trend is raising a critical question regarding the perceived power of the object – once the cornerstone of touring. If confirmed in the years to come, this trend might lead to a major transformation of the touring exhibition offer. This is supported by the fact that the anticipated popularity of the topic is now the top factor for choosing a touring exhibition over an in-house exhibition, as opposed to access to exceptional objects/collection in 2021.
The final trend relates to the search for trusted and tested approaches. It seems indeed that the sector is looking for formulas which will minimise financial risk and maximise return in terms of visibility and footfall. Funding and costs are still considered to be among the main challenges for touring exhibitions in general as well as among the top deciding factors for choosing a touring exhibition over an in-house exhibition. This seems to be in line with the financial hardship that the cultural sector has been facing since COVID, with organisations wanting to minimise their financial risks and maximise the chance of popular success. The top perceived benefits of touring exhibitions reinforce too the idea that touring exhibitions need to be financially viable and bring additional income, with the diversification of audiences as well as increased revenue rising in importance compared to the survey in 2021. This search for security and the comfort of the known methods may also explain the divide among practitioners when it comes to addressing environmental sustainability. Indeed, although the sector is overall concerned about the environment which is considered as the top 2 challenge for the touring industry, the sector is still split in the way to address it: 45% of the respondents think that collections and displays should continue to tour at the same scale as today whereas 40% say collections and displays for touring should be reduced significantly in volume to address the climate emergency. It may therefore be interesting in the future to conduct an in-focus survey on how the community is reacting to the climate emergency and how this will affect touring exhibition practices moving forward.
Lastly, in terms of ways of working, although the importance of maintaining existing networks of one-to-one connections also emerges from the survey, so too does the belief that it is a sector with room for expansion, even in terms of growing and developing touring exhibitions and collaborations at new types of venues (shopping malls & retail centres, exhibition halls, biennales & fairs, outdoor spaces) or in new geographic markets.
So overall, what appears as a constant is the fact that the touring exhibition community shows great resilience, adaptability and optimism when faced with major challenges and hurdles such as the pandemic, climate crisis or geopolitical instability. Like in 2021, this 2023 survey stresses that touring exhibitions are here to stay and to provide an important channel through which cultural exchanges and circulation of ideas around the world can effectively happen regardless of the obstacles. We are very grateful to those who have shared their views and ambition by responding to the survey and very much hope that this year’s report will provide useful food for thought to a community that is continuously demonstrating its ability to keep imagining interesting new futures.