It is the revenue-generating potential of international touring exhibitions that often garners the most attention. But with international travel ground to a halt and museums across the globe closed to onsite visitors, blockbusters have been left in limbo. It is difficult to know whether these large-scale, commercially focused exhibitions will have a future in a post-Covid-19 world. For the foreseeable future, many institutions will be thinking local, small-scale and digital.
Now, more than ever, we need to consider what is the relevance and role of international touring exhibitions. In our study of international exhibitions, we found that most were in fact influenced by a combination of drivers across diplomatic, museum mission-related, and market-oriented domains. We propose a simple model of these intersecting domains to better appreciate and understand the interplay of these drivers (Figure 1).
In this article, we explain why we think this model is useful and how it might be used as a tool in the planning, preparation and evaluation of exhibitions. We propose that using our model of drivers as a tool to focus on the intended impacts of touring exhibitions (or indeed any intercultural museum project), cultural institutions will be able to rethink what they do on the world stage and ultimately find new ways to achieve their diplomatic, international and intercultural missions.
Why a model of drivers?
As we argue throughout our book Cosmopolitan Ambassadors, international exhibitions are complex, multi-level, long-term projects and the impacts that they seek are often dispersed across institutional mission, market and diplomatic domains.
Figure 1: Model of exhibition project drivers
The market-related domain includes internal revenue from the likes of corporate sponsorship, ticket sales, and merchandising, as well as flow on revenue from parking, food services, memberships, special events, public programmes and educational services. The wider economic impact generated by touring exhibitions can also be important, including employment and local tourism. International exhibitions may contribute to the marketing and branding of a city as an attractive destination, bringing in high-spending tourists as well as creating a sense of pride and identity for residents, making it an attractive place to live and work. However, the cost of hosting a blockbuster exhibition capable of generating this kind of attention can run into the millions of dollars and is therefore usually only viable if public and/or private sponsorship is available.
Museum missions encompass a wide spectrum of values that encapsulate their raison d’etre and are realised through a broad range of museum functions. The mission-related drivers for touring exhibitions may include visitation, audience development, engaging new communities and stakeholders, institutional reputation, strengthening international partnerships, scholarly exchange, museological innovation and professional development. Missions may also relate to various forms of social change, justice, human rights and intercultural understanding.
Governments in the past invested significant sums in national self-promotion through touring exhibitions. For instance, In the post-war era, the Mexican Government presented a series of exhibitions in Europe. Art Mexicain du Précolombien à Nos Jours was presented at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, and a version called Mexican Art from 1500 B.C. to the Present Day was staged in Stockholm and London between 1952 and 1953, before travelling to eleven European countries under various names and finally returned to Paris a decade later, all government financed (Molina 2013). While the investment is smaller today, they have continued to support—financially or in kind—exhibitions that contribute to policies of national branding or complement diplomatic missions. This is likely to be a partial contribution to exhibitions that are also fuelled by a mix of museum mission and market-related drivers. In our study, we found that the diplomatic-related drivers included not only supporting government foreign policy goals, but also promoting national values, positioning museums on the world stage and advancing intercultural understanding. The work museums and their staff undertake can have a diplomatic nature encompassing communication styles, open-mindedness and willingness to incorporate other perspectives, while being respectful and receptive to the feelings and needs of others.
Visitor numbers and revenue generated (or lost) have often been used as de facto measures of the success (or failure) of international exhibitions. A deeper understanding of the range of drivers for touring exhibitions would assist in promoting their value across a range of domains.
It is important to have a clear articulation of the drivers in each domain at the outset of an exhibition project. You can then evaluate them using an appropriate set of indicators (see Table 1 for some examples). This will help to communicate the project’s value to funders, stakeholders and the general public.
Some key points to be mindful of:
- impacts are often dispersed across mission, market and diplomatic domains.
- success in one domain is no guarantee of positive impact in another.
- impacts can be assessed through the evaluation of outcomes.
- short term outcomes are easier to assess than long-term.
- using quantitative measures alongside qualitative indicators that show a contribution to impact can be an appropriate solution.
Table 1: Domains, drivers and possible indicators
Mapping the drivers: a tool for exhibition developers
This is a team exercise we proposed and has been tested in a workshop we ran last year. Its aim is to map your institution’s drivers for a specific project across each domain: market, mission and diplomatic; and identify potential indicators.
- Get a team of 4 to 6 team members
- Think about each domain and its drivers in relation to a project you are involved in.
- Individually, draw a diagram in which each of the domains has the appropriate size depending on its respective importance for your project. The result might resemble Figure 1, but each circle can have different size.
- List the relevant drivers (intended impacts) in each domain. Consider where drivers may sit at the intersection between domains.
- Share with your group & reflect on each other’s diagrams:
- Do the sizes of the domains differ & if so, why?
- What are some potential indicators for each driver?
- How can this be translated into your project goals, development and evaluation?
We developed our model of exhibition drivers as a tool for international exhibitions when this kind of project was at the forefront of many museums’ tasks. While we never imagined the scenario an unprecedented pandemic could cause, we believe the model is perhaps now more useful than ever before. As the crisis raises questions about the value of projects, institutions must decide how they will allocate diminishing funds in order to sustain both their financial positions and their institutional missions. Applying this model can help to formalise the process of understanding and realising the full range of value that international exhibitions can contribute.
Museums are only now beginning to reopen to onsite visitors, a lot of international exhibitions have stalled, collection loan periods have been extended, and there is no certainty when everything will return to “normal”. But many analysts are predicting that normality will not be usual business as we know it. Most museums are already in the process of reimagining their future.
In these contexts, the drivers for the market domain might seem the most challenging to achieve, but there is a lot of space to think about mission and diplomatic domains. These in the end could attract some revenue as well, if they enhance institutional reputation and brand, for example.
Through the reflection of some of our workshop participants, we found that the model we envisioned originally for the international exhibitions scene can be applied for exhibitions produced in house, that the diplomatic domain (with its intercultural nature) is relevant to connect different communities at a local level, and, also that it is a powerful tool for teams to arrive at a common understanding of a project’s value.