What type of travelling exhibition models shall be sustainable in a post-COVID 19 scenario? This is the million-dollar question I keep getting when the subject comes up. We have come to think of the industry as being prevalently blockbuster oriented, moving valuable material culture across the globe for audiences to experience. The model has certainly brought in much needed revenue streams to museums worldwide.
It comes as no surprise that the need for the travelling exhibitions industry to reinvent itself and explore new models beyond the blockbuster idea of what a travelling exhibition should be is the topic of discussion at this point in time. The blockbuster exhibition itself has been under scrutiny in recent years. American art historian James Beck had, way back in 2001, claimed that the rise of technology-driven experiences would make the movement of works of art relatively unnecessary. Beck also questions the pedagogical relevance of the blockbuster idea where relevance is much more pertinent to the scholar than to the public at large. Beck’s paper, published in Notes in the History of Art was aptly titled The End of the Blockbuster Exhibitions? and his concerns were also shared by others over time. In more recent times Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, argues1 that the blockbuster model was killing art, besides the funding and resources required for such endeavours. Tweedy’s concerns, shared by many others, stem from the need for exhibitions to empower better access, viewing and understanding of art, certainly beyond the constraints of the blockbuster crowds. That feeling is shared by many in the art world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited the debate once again, and the doubts are stronger than ever before. The latest contribution on the subject to feature on Art Newspaper2, penned by Director of Exhibitions and Strategic Initiatives at the Brooklyn Museum, Sharon Matt Atkins, advocates a major rethink of the travelling exhibition project idea. This, Atkins reiterates, is “an opportunity to reimagine different exhibition models, while still providing similar motivators that originally drove the blockbuster trend.” Andrew Dixon goes further. In his contribution aptly entitled Bye bye, blockbusters: can the art world adapt to Covid-19?3 Dixon quotes Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, and her frustration that the blockbuster exhibition has somehow and somewhat diverted museums from their core mission. Morris too concedes that the footfall-driving blockbuster exhibition with star loans shipped across the globe might have had their day.
How and in what ways the blockbuster exhibition idea will evolve is hard to predict. It might survive by morphing into a new, leaner model or develop plug in financial models based on a major rethink to the ticketing system. Museums seem to be keener on looking within and invest in travelling exhibition projects that build on the strengths of their collections, particularly those with a high percentage of works in storage. I think there are new models to explore and now is the right time to do so. It may still be early days to understand what the direct outcome of this necessary soul-searching exercise shall be. I live in the hope that the issues raised way back by Beck and others inform new models and experiences that are financially lighter to handle albeit pedagogically more apt and relevant.
The low-cost airline industry
I love to go by analogy as it helps explain the concept better. In this case, I choose the low-cost airline industry. The industry’s early years date back to 1970s North America, best described as a sequence of innovations and proliferations. It has certainly evolved and developed since then. The business model is, in short, an amalgam of low pricing, point to point frequency routes, online ticketing systems, streamlined use of aircraft models, secondary airports usage and highly-productive staff. It is not the business model in its entirety that can suggest analogies with low-cost travelling exhibition models but key elements do hold potential to inform a leaner and more relevant travelling exhibition model.
By going for the medium to small size museum as the new main client base, by shedding travel costs in the choice of material culture mixes by having fewer objects but of higher cultural value or significance, by increasing the frequency and range of these lightweight travelling exhibitions and by streamlining and extending visitor time via online ticketing systems, the low-cost travelling exhibition can indeed become a sustainable model. This new proposal on the market would not exclude bigger and more articulate exhibition projects, perhaps leaner versions of the standard blockbuster exhibition. Indeed, this new breed of low-cost exhibitions would not exclude the bigger international museums from their potential client base either. This new model would help the industry diversify, invest in agility and become more relevant.
There is one overriding ambition that this new touring exhibition model can also address and that would be slow looking. The concept was first conceived by Project Zero, a research and development center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education founded by Philosopher Nelson Goodman in 1967 with the purpose of understanding and enhancing learning, thinking and creativity for individuals and groups in the arts and other disciplines. It has also been experimented by the Tate museum in London, particularly with regards to art and also became the topic of a book published in 2017 and written by Shari Tishman4, Senior Research Associate at Project Zero. Tishman defines slow looking as a mode of learning, a means of gaining knowledge through observation. The main goal would be to move beyond the first impression to engage with a more immersive experience fostering critical and creative thinking. By going for a smaller selection of works, also due to circumstances, travelling exhibitions can increase their potential as educational experiences and become visual literacy experiences through the slow looking experience.
The concept in wireframe format
The slow looking travelling exhibition model can also be described as a low-cost, lightweight variant of the blockbuster. It can expand and contract accordingly so long as the core values that shape this new model remain central to the thinking behind it. I propose a quick sketch of the model, certainly in need of more work and polish, particularly if it is taken up and stress tested in the appropriate wind tunnel – pun intended.
My wireframe is split in two sections to be broadly understood as a tentative supply – demand equation. On one hand, the experience is the proposal that is on offer. At the other end, the audience is the knowledge “consumer” base who will access the experience.
This component would combine a leaner repertoire of material culture including objects with high-end interpretation presented across multiple platforms of which the physical would still be the lynchpin experience.
i. Less objects, more cultural value
This is a crucial mix to consider and can vary between a greater number of artefacts with relatively lesser cultural value to a smaller, more contained selection, having much more relevance and significance. In any case, the selection needs to be contained in order to make possible a slow learning experience.
ii. High storytelling content
Rather than focus on the once in a lifetime opportunity which is generally the case for the blockbuster exhibition, the interpretative contours would require high-end storytelling content that would support slow looking experiences in creative ways. This would also include an increase in digital content.
iii. Transmedia experience
Transmedia storytelling is defined by Henry Jenkins as a process whereby integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. Jenkins presented his ideas on transmedia way back in 2003, but the thinking can be traced all the way back to Walt Disney and his ambition to create a multi-platform narrative universe.
The experience which (i) and (ii) would jointly create would be presented on multiple platforms accessible before and after the direct physical experience of visiting the exhibition. In this way, the slow looking exhibition concept would be accessible for a longer stretch of time and accessible to new audiences that might be prevalently netizens but with the potential interest to visit.
This is where accessibility would need to be understood in new ways, beyond the traditional visit to the physical experience. The mix of viewing times, beyond the physical visit, and online ticketing systems covering access across platforms, would help bring the experience much more within reach of potential audiences.
i. Extended mix of viewing times
The need to reach out to potential publics and audiences across a wider range of platforms would also require a varied mix of viewing time, including access levels for complementary albeit stand-alone digital and virtual experiences.
ii. Online ticketing systems
The low-cost airline industry can be a direct source of inspiration as far as online ticketing systems are concerned. Given the multi-platform experience which transmedia potentially holds for the industry to develop, services across platforms might require just one ticket to access.
iii. Pay-per-use and access in tiers
The use of transmedia thinking would lead potential users to access the experience across time and physical space, as frequently as required also beyond the physical visit. Should the experience be presented in tiers, this could also help with monetisation.
A model worth testing?
I do think this is. Indeed, it is a mere sketch, a preliminary idea that would need to be tested further but, more than the need to reinvent itself in response to the dire economic circumstances that the industry might be facing, this is perhaps the right time for new models to have meaning and purpose.
This wireframe might not work in its entirety. It might possibly evolve and develop at a later stage knowing too well that there is no quick fix to the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, I still feel this thinking holds potential for inspiration.
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