From blockbusters to selfie sticks: are crowds ruining culture?

Saturday 17 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Garden Room, Barbican Arts & Society

The increase in the numbers visiting museums and galleries has been celebrated by many as a renaissance in the public’s interest in culture. But with 15million visitors to British national institutions last year, others lament they are now as busy as shopping malls.

The problem is worldwide, and typified by images of the Mona Lisa surrounded by crowds of tourists who have queued for hours to take a selfie in front of her while taking little time to appreciate the painting. Growing crowds not only make for an uncomfortable viewing experience, but may actually put art at risk.  Last year, the Vatican Museums admitted that some of their frescoes by Raphael and Michelangelo had been damaged by condensation and air pollution caused by tens of thousands of visitors each day. Several major institutions like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Met in New York and the National Gallery in London have banned selfie-sticks for fear that visitors wielding them in crowded rooms may damage important works. 

Some also question whether the surge in visitors is really caused by a renewed interest in culture. BBC arts editor Will Gompertz has noted that the number of domestic visitors at some UK galleries has decreased while overall visitor numbers have soared because of foreign tourists, many of whom will be holiday selfie-takers rather than art lovers. Indeed, some works have attained ‘celebrity status’, like the British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery, and have been included on lists of ‘things to see before you die’. How many really look at them to try and understand what really makes them great?

It has been suggested that institutions limit entry by charging foreign visitors or issuing a restricted number of tickets each day, or even organising special visiting times for people who want a more ‘exclusive’ experience. It has also been suggested that large popular collections be broken up so more people can see them in less crowded environments.  Should museums act to mitigate overcrowding, or should they continue to reach out to groups in society who are thought to under-use them? Is there a problem with the ‘wrong type’ of visitors visiting for the ‘wrong reasons’?  Is it elitist to expect everyone to aspire to a deep appreciation of what they are looking at?

Listen to the debate

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Dr Martin Roth
director, Victoria and Albert Museum

Dr Michael Savage
blogger, Grumpy Art Historian

Anne Torreggiani
chief executive, The Audience Agency

Dr Wendy Earle
impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum

Produced by
Dr Wendy Earle impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum
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Richard Lacayo, Time Magazine, 17 September 2009

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