What happens when you combine reality TV tactics with a traditional art collection? This guest post, written by Philippa Tinsley, Collections Manager for the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum (UK), describes the innovative Top 40 exhibition they mounted in the summer of 2009.
In my experience, museum professionals aren’t big reality TV viewers. If you don’t watch Big Brother, The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars or X factor you probably dismiss these shows because they revolve around people you don’t know in an environment you find uninteresting and over-hyped. This is, of course, the same reason why many non-visitors don’t come to museums.
The secret of reality TV’s success is the viewer’s involvement with the ‘journey’ of the contestants. You are encouraged to develop an emotional commitment to your choice of participant (not necessarily monogamously), learning more about them as they stay in the programme, and in live shows, to support your favourite with your vote each week.
This was the main aim of this year’s summer exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, Top 40: Countdown of Worcester’s Favourite Pictures. We wanted visitors not just to tell us their favourites, but to develop a stronger emotional connection to specific paintings in the exhibition (and as a consequence to the museum as a whole during a time of major change).
The format of the exhibition was extremely simple – forty ‘star’ paintings from Worcester City Museums’ collection were hung in a visually pleasing layout with no reference to date or theme. Written interpretation about the pictures was kept to a minimum, although we did include family-orientated activity workstations relating to five individual paintings. In the centre of the exhibition we set up a ballot box and voting sheets and encouraged visitors to vote for their favourite picture and, if they wanted to, tell us why.
Each Monday morning we counted up the votes cast during the previous week and on Wednesday, the museum released a new Top 40 chart. A fairly large label with this week’s chart position was placed next to each artwork. We also sent out a weekly press release about the new countdown and announced the new number one on Twitter.
On the opening day someone wrote ‘About time we had a curator’ in the comments book and I was gutted – I thought the idea had failed. However, by the end of the first week it was clear that the majority of our audience was hooked. Spontaneous discussions broke out in the gallery on the relative merits of different pictures; visitors of all ages came back again and again to see where their favourite was in the chart that week and to cast another vote – at times they were queuing outside before we opened. As well as our existing audience, new visitors came just because they wanted to be part of it. I was particularly pleased to see young children persuading their parents and grandparents to participate. The minimal but family-friendly interpretation from us meant visitors were confident arguing that they liked a picture because it was ‘happy’ or ‘colourful’, but it didn’t hold anyone back - some visitors shared very considered art historical opinions on their voting sheets.
In reality TV, producers manipulate viewers’ reactions by shrewd production choices and editing that make boring contestants seem more interesting (see this great article for more analysis on this). I was in two minds as to whether it was ethical to influence our visitors’ commitment towards certain paintings in the exhibition and I’d welcome your comments on this. It was hard to avoid it completely: for example I deliberately chose to link the activity workstations to five very different paintings and this meant Mark Wallinger’s Samizdat (a very intense and quite academic contemporary artwork) probably got more votes because we actively encouraged up close examination. And there was the phenomenon we called the Thomas Creswick Effect: after four weeks of it receiving no votes at all, I wrote a press release about Worcester’s Creswick painting and our local newspaper ran it as an article. The following week it shot up the chart from number 40 to number 14!
The contribution of the positive support from our local paper, the Worcester Evening News, cannot be underestimated. They enjoyed being part of the project and reporting the chart each week – it made a great local story. It was clear that their publicity had more impact with our audience than our tweeting and Flickr posts. I believe this local emphasis intensified our visitors’ emotional connection and this was a key part of the exhibition’s success.
Staff were very supportive of the exhibition, perhaps because they too have a lot of love for the collection. We encouraged visitors to email us photographs of themselves with their favourite picture and the first pictures arriving in the inbox (unsolicited) were all taken by staff! Our summer exhibition is always a very lively show aimed at a family audience. Within this framework, lots of participation and little curatorial interpretation was not difficult for our staff or visitors. What was unexpected were the positive comments about the format both in the gallery and in the newspaper from very art-informed visitors. We are now actively looking at ways to build on this success in all our exhibitions, although it’s a much bigger challenge in touring or artist-curated shows.
Just like live reality TV, Top 40 felt like a risk at times. It was relatively low budget, but unlike most exhibitions took a lot of curatorial and technical staff time during the exhibition’s run. It could have gone badly wrong: a larger proportion of our audience (and our peer group) might have considered our interpretation strategy as dumbing-down or a demonstration of the museum’s curatorial ignorance. Or our visitors might have become bored and we could have lost that valued connection before the exhibition ended. But in reality, the exhibition format really worked, both for the participating visitors and for the future shape of Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum. The challenge now is to take that audience connection into the next step of the museum’s organisational development.
Philippa will be checking in to answer any questions you might have in the comments here on the blog. I'm on vacation this week and will join the conversation when I return!