Why museums have become our home from home
People are visiting our galleries and museums at a startling rate. Is it the cafés, the absence of swearing... maybe even the art?
Why do people go to museums? It's not easy to find out. Frankly, there's a lot of waffle. I've spent the past week in them, trotting up to people and saying: “According to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, museum and gallery attendance is rocketing in Britain. Why are you here?” Everybody is polite, because people always are in museums and galleries, but nobody really knows. “I was interested in the exhibition,” they might say, not all that helpfully. Or, “the kids like it”. It's hard, at first, to see the thread. People go for all sorts of reasons. Or so they think.
A friend and I, for example, once went to the Saatchi Gallery, drunk, to understand how our other friend Jez had ruined his shoes. He'd been a few weeks before, also drunk, and he'd blundered into Richard Wilson's 20:50. Do you know it? Big room full of reflective engine oil, with a walkway down the middle. Totally disorientating. Amazing. Jez had flailed around, bewildered, and scooped the stuff on to his feet. Art all over his Nikes. We went to see if we could replicate it. It sounded, like, mind-expanding. Hey, we were students.
It turns out that this was actually a very old-fashioned way to behave. According to the various histories of museums into which I have delved (Giles Waterfield's Palaces of Art is particularly good on this), I was buying into the German Romantic idea of the museum as a temple, in which the visitor “should enjoy a quasi-mystical experience”. Sounds about right. None of the many museum-goers to whom I spoke in the past week was doing anything like this. So, here's theory No1: museum numbers are up, because, quite suddenly, museums aren't much like museums.
I've a few theories to come, but this one makes a lot of sense. It certainly does in Liverpool, which, as 2008's EU Capital of Culture, saw museum and gallery attendances soar by something like 400 per cent.
“We decided to take a real look at the audience,” says Phil Redmond, who was the creative director of Liverpool 2008 and also, just so it clicks, the guy who created Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks. He says: “If you have people who are used to bright and breezy entertainment with TV, you have to make the venues a lot more bright and breezy too. You make them more kid-friendly. Have a kid zone. Education workshops. Follow the dinosaur prints.”
Redmond adds that you need to balance this with the ability for people to sit quietly in museums and reflect, and that some things should be family-friendly and some perhaps not. It's notable, though, that when it comes to attendances, family-friendly is what works. Consider: Tate Liverpool (bright, breezy) up 67 per cent; Merseyside Maritime Museum (likewise) up 69 per cent; The Lady Lever Art Gallery (austere, heavyweight) down 16 per cent.
You could call theory No1 the “dumbing down” theory, only none of the punters I met was dumb. There was Sean Barron, the bar manager from Brighton, who was up to see the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery and was “particularly pleased to see Picasso's interpretation of the Las Meninas” because he liked the Velásquez original. There was the Carter/House/Downing family from Woking and surrounds, all three generations, who were in the British Museum only because little Abigail, 8, was doing a project on the Egyptians, but knew their stuff about the mummies and had been to St Albans the other week when she was studying the Romans.
Quite un-dumb, in fact, which allows me to sluice neatly into theory No2, as expounded by the likes of Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster, and Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. This is what you might call the “dumbing up” theory. In other words, museum numbers are up because people are getting cleverer.
There's a lot to be said for this. This is the Britain where everybody loves watching Stephen Fry on QI, and more people listen to Radio 4 than Radio 1. “There is a huge desire,” MacGregor says, “to understand and to address complexity, and to spend the time that it takes to do so.” For the museum's Babylon exhibition (which ends tomorrow), the average dwell-time was an hour. For Hadrian, it was an hour and 40 minutes. For the current exhibition on Shah Abbas, it is about an hour and a half. It is not true, MacGregor says, that we live in an era of dropping attention spans.
Nicholas Kenyon, formerly the controller of the Proms and now managing director of the Barbican, reckons that there is something very British about the pace of a museum: “There is something in our culture that is free-flowing. People can take as long as they want.” He notices it particularly, he says, coming from a background in the performing arts.
The British Museum, perhaps, sits bang in the centre of competing notions about what a museum should be. There are cafés and a restaurant, and it's certainly family-friendly. But there's a dose of mystery here, too. In Liverpool, Redmond insisted that the whole point of collections is that “they are there to contextualise our past”. We have to view them, he said, “in terms of the stories they can tell. People often think that collections themselves are the point, and don't need to be explained.”
This sits uneasily with more oldfashioned notions of custodianship, which many still feel is the purpose of a museum. Still, he has a point. I thought of his words when I went through to the Duveen Gallery to see the Elgin Marbles and hunted in vain for a sign to told me that, yes, these actually were the Elgin Marbles.
I walked through the V&A on a Monday afternoon, and in some sections - South- East Asia, Japan, European Textiles - I didn't see a soul. This is your proper quasi-mystical museum experience. Take your German Romantic friends, if you have any. They'll love it. To stand alone in half-light on a polished floor, staring up at a 16thcentury tapestry of men with crazy beards, lambs in armour and a soldier shaking the hand of a bear is a bewildering experience. You can feel the ticking in your head. It's not what crowds want. The V&A was down last year by 15 per cent - although perhaps that's because they did so well the year before with the Kylie exhibition.
You might be alone, but you don't worry about getting mugged. The V&A says that it rarely has more than a couple of security incidents a year. The National Gallery is bang on Trafalgar Square, but even they need to kick people out only every couple of months. That brings me to theory No3. Museum numbers are up because museums are safe. “They attract only a certain type of person, let's face it,” says Margaret Child, 79, from Essex, visiting the National with a group of older ladies and then heading off to see Sunset Boulevard: “In any museum, do you ever hear the F-word? You hear it up and down every high street. In the cafeteria, all ages, all denominations, no one swearing.”
I meet Debbie Norton and Sarah O'Connell, both from Haringey, in the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, which is part museum, part playground. They are with their respective two-year-olds, Jessie and Leila. “It's a safe space to play,” Debbie says: “We can have something to eat, they can entertain themselves.” Sarah says that the kids can run off and she can wait a minute or two before having to chase them. “It's also safe as in health-and-safety safe,” she says. In Tate Modern, I was struck by the number of disabled folk in buggies.
Aside from me and my drunk friends, people really do behave themselves in museums. Redmond jokes that this is because there is “more security per square metre than anywhere else on Earth”. He agrees, though, that there is something about museums that people respect. Neil MacGregor , at the British Museum, agrees. “The Great Court has become London's village green,” he says. “It's where you bring the children. It's where you meet a friend. It's the space that belongs to everyone.”
Free entry has a huge amount to do with this. That should probably be Theory 4, the credit-crunch theory. People are going to museums because museums are free. Most of Britain's biggest museums have been free for years, but, as MacGregor puts it, it's the rhetoric of free admission since 2001 that has had an impact, as much as the fact. When the Tory culture spokesman, Hugo Swire, spoke of reintroducing entry charges in 2007 there was national uproar, and a few months later David Cameron sacked him.
When I asked Redmond his best tip for getting people into museums, he snorted and said “create a recession”. Everybody going to a museum approves of free entry, even if (and this is the crucial bit) they are then paying extra to see a special exhibition, such as Picasso at the National (£12.50) or Shah Abbas at the British Museum (£12). Free admission to museums has given the public a sense of ownership over them. This ties into Theory1, and the way that many museums no longer feel like somebody else's country house. They feel like they are ours.
And so to Theory5. They're coming thick and fast now, these theories, but this, I think, is my favourite. People are flocking to museums because museums are the best public space we have. Britain is too secular to value its churches and too divorced from local governance to give a damn about town halls. Schools are not the social hubs they once were. Museums fill a gap.
All the other theories, I reckon, trickle into this one. Museums are as much about activities, these days, as collections. Debates at the British Museum. DJs at the Royal Academy. The Museum of Childhood, as discussed, being used as a playpark. In East London, galleries stay open late every Thursday, as nightlife. The V&A does the same on Fridays. Cafés. Restaurants. Places to go.
The National Wool Museum in Wales had 24,344 visitors last year. That's a bad Saturday morning for the British Museum, but it is 11 per cent up on last year. Ann Whittall, the museum's manager, tells me why. “We've got a very successful family trail,” she says. “The Woolly Trail. It helps families to understand what they are seeing. It's interactive and you get thread at the end. We've a café that sells local produce, and mills. We're 16 miles north of Carmarthen, so in the winter we rely on our local audience. We have a carol concert and a craft fair at Christmas time. We have a knitting club, and nursery groups meet here, too.”
That's almost every theory, in a single tiny package. See how they all work? Only the German Romantics need feel left out.