Death by Curation: Why the Special Exhibit Isn’t So Special Anymore (CASE STUDY)

Museums often develop a cycle wherein they rely heavily on visitation from special exhibits – rather than their permanent collections – in order to meet their basic, annual goals. This is a case of “death by curation” – bringing in bigger and bigger exhibits in order to keep the lights on. Museums often fail to recognize that the best part of the museum experience, according to visitors and substantial data, is who folks visit and interact with instead of what they see. Understanding that a museum visit is more about people than it is about objects can help museums break the vicious cycle of “death by curation,” and help them develop more sustainable business practices.


The Myth of the Special Exhibit Strategy

It’s no secret that a true blockbuster exhibit can boost a museum’s attendance to record levels. However, a “blockbuster” is rare, and the fact that these blockbusters spike attendance so dramatically is an important finding: Blockbusters are anomalies – NOT the basis of a sustainable plan.

We know the story well: a museum decides to host an exhibit and develops exhibit-related messaging to promote visitation to the exhibit. The museum sees a spike in attendance, which dips when the exhibit closes. The museum wants to hit these high numbers again so it hosts a “bigger” exhibit and hopes for the same visitation spike.

This is the beginning of a costly, ineffective cycle. Here are two misbeliefs that perpetuate this less-than-sustainable practice:

1. The museum comes to believe that it cannot motivate visitation without rotating increasingly “blockbuster” exhibits. And, by doing this, museums train their audiences only to visit when there is a new exhibit. Thus, they risk curating themselves into unsustainable business practices.

2. If the museum is successful with this strategy of rotating blockbuster exhibits, then the exhibits grow grander (it’s hard to keep improving on a “blockbuster” – have you ever known a sequel to cost less than the original?), and the attendant costs grow at unsustainable rates…but become conceptually necessary for the museum to keep their lights on.

What of the hopeful thought that visitors to blockbuster exhibits will become regular museum-goers? It is largely a myth. An IMPACTS study of five art museums – each hosting a “blockbuster” exhibit between years 2007-2010, found that only 21.8% of visitors to the exhibit saw the “majority or entirety” of the museum experience. And, of those persons visiting the sampled art museums during the same time period, 50.5% indicated experiencing “only” the special exhibition. This data indicates that these special exhibit visitors are not seeing your permanent collections and, thus, are missing an opportunity to connect with your museum and become true evangelists.

Even members, whom museums often assume are more connected to their permanent collections than the general public, have been trained to respond almost exclusively to “blockbuster” stimuli. To wit: The National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study recently completed in April 2011 indicates that of lapsed museum members with an intent to renew their memberships, 88.6% state that they will renew their memberships “when they next visit.” Of these same lapsed members, 62.5% indicate that they will defer their next visit “until there is a new exhibit.” In other words, museums have trained even their closest constituents to wait for these expensive exhibits in order to justify their return visit.


Case Study

I like to think of this as a sort of “Pavlov for the museum world” – except instead of inspiring behavior with a bell, we’ve decided to provide Monet, Mondrian and Picasso as stimuli. This is all perhaps well and good…but it isn’t sustainable.

Consider the 20-year attendance history of a museum client of IMPACTS (the company for which I work). Can you spot the “blockbuster” year?

In this example (which I selected because it is representative of the experience of many museums), the “blockbuster” exhibit of year 2004 resulted in a 47.6% spike in visitation. But, what is perhaps most telling is how quickly – post-blockbuster – the client’s annual visitation returned to its average level. Does this suggest that the client shouldn’t pursue another blockbuster? Well, they did. But, not with the expected results.

Let’s consider the same chart again – this time with the special exhibits costs by year also indicated:

Still drunk with success from their blockbuster exhibit in year 2004, this museum went to the “tried” (but, not necessarily, “true”) blockbuster formula in year 2009. As you can see, in terms of visitation, history decidedly did NOT repeat itself. This where it becomes additionally important to acknowledge that “expensive does not a blockbuster make.”(See the domestic box office receipts of “John Carter” for recent proof).

Another fun fact that will surprise absolutely no one in the museum world – audiences are fickle! Their preferences shift quickly and they become increasingly hard to please. In fact, first-time-ever museum visitors rate their overall satisfaction 19.1% higher than persons who have previously visited any other museum. In my business, we call this “point of reference sensitivity” – the market’s expectations, perceptions and tolerances are constantly shifting and being re-framed by its experiences. Think about it yourself: The FIRST kiss goodnight – a forever memory! The hundredth kiss goodnight – (still sweet, but) been there, done that.


Break the Cycle: Invest in People and Interactions

Knowing that who a visitor comes with is the best part of visiting a museum provides power for museums to break this cycle.

Instead of relying on the rotation of expensive exhibits, many successful museums instead invest in their frontline people and provide them with the tools to facilitate interactions that dramatically improve the visitor experience. Improving the visitor experience increases positive word of mouth that, in turn, brings more people through the door. Importantly, reviews from trusted resources (e.g. WOM) tend to not only inspire visitation, they also have the positive benefit of decreasing the amount of time between visits. In other words, people who have a better experience are more likely to come back again sooner.

The power of with > what has other positive financial implications for museums. If the institution focuses on increasing the overall experience (which, again, is a motivator in and of itself – as opposed to the “one-off effect” of gaining a single visit with a new exhibit), then the museum’s value-for-cost perception increases. In other words, it allows the museum to charge more money for admission without alienating audiences because these audiences are willing to pay a premium for a positive experience.

(For you mission-driven folks shaking your head about how this potentially excludes underserved audiences, this is where your accessibility programs will shine. It allows them to be more effective and increases their perceptual value as well.)

This isn’t to say that new content and engaging exhibits are not critical to a museum’s success. It is to say, though, that times are changing. To sustain both in terms of economics and relevance, museums must evolve from organizations that are mostly about “us” (what we have is special and you’re lucky to see it), to organizations that are primarily concerned about “them” – the visitors.

Like it or not, the market is the ultimate arbiter of a museum’s success. Those of us with academic pedigree, years of experience, and technical expertise may well be in a position to declare “importance,” but it is the market that reserves the absolute right to determine relevance. In other words, while curators still largely design the ballots, it is the general public who cast the votes. And, in the race to sustain a relationship with the museum-going public, the returns are in and the special exhibit isn’t so special anymore.

Posted on by colleendilen in Exhibits, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, The Future, Words of Wisdom 11 Comments

About the author


MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

11 Responses to Death by Curation: Why the Special Exhibit Isn’t So Special Anymore (CASE STUDY)

  1. K. Burnett

    Great analysis! It’s so sad, but true. Out of curiosity, do you happen to know if these figures differ much by city size? The impression I have is that more mid-market museums tend to try for blockbusters, but I could be off there.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for asking this. It’s a very good point. We have data for 218 visitor-serving organizations in the US and many of them are, indeed, mid-market museums, zoos, and aquariums. We see that mid-sized museums (and/or museums in mid-sized markets) DO try to emulate the success of larger institutions with this special exhibit strategy. The difference is that these mid-sized museums often see only the “positives” of the large market’s success and many times underestimate the costs associated with the exhibit (staff, infrastructure support, events, marketing, etc). What they miss – largely – is that often times larger institutions in larger markets can AFFORD to fail (though of course that’s not the goal). So as not to call out any museums, I’ll go back to the John Carter example. That movie may go down in history as one of the biggest financial failures in cinema- but at the end of the day, Disney could afford that failure. It would cripple (at best) or bankrupt a smaller studio. We see that often times with museums in larger markets. They ask the question, “If this exhibit fails in terms of visitation, was it still worth the investment?” Contrary to immediate belief, the answer (especially for big institutions, which are often in larger markets) isn’t always “No.” In fact, IMPACTS works with a client that wanted us to test the actionability of folks going to an exhibit with a potentially controversial environmental message. Data indicated that it would NOT draw visitation and, in fact, may well alienate some prospective attendees. However, the client gained positive sentiment due to their tackling of the issue (though people didn’t come specifically for that exhibit). Resulting data indicated that the aquarium’s reputation as a credible source for environmental information increased due to the exhibit, and this helped to increase attendance in the long run. A smaller organization would not likely have had the grace of such purely mission-based considerations. On the topic of pure financial incentive, I think that it is fair to say that many mid-sized organizations are mesmerized by the successes of their larger peers, and perhaps selectively blind to their failures.

  2. greglandgraf

    Thanks for the analysis. There’s been a fair amount of information lately about the importance of experiences in museums. While the exhibits are a big part of that, they are far from the only one.

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  4. nancyeproctor

    Great post: thanks for encouraging *sustainable* museum practices. Museum business cannot succeed by the structures and metrics of a (quick fix) capitalist market and must think long term to fulfill its mission.

  5. E De Quesada

    Interesting analysis, and of course it is true that many museums have found themselves in a situation where they have to schedule blockbuster exhibitions to maintain growth on new members and earned revenue.

    Your position that these museums might be better off if they depended on regular museum admission works for museums that incorporate general admission. However, there has also been a trend amongst some museums to do away with general admission. Those museums, in particular, depend on ticketed exhibitions.

    Have you done any research on free admission museums? Do you know what is the impact for free museums?

    • colleendilen

      This is a very relevant question for museums, so thanks for asking! (Not to mention – this question itself is a big can of worms and may deserve its own post!) We do have data on “free” museums and they are not immune to the cycle outlined herein. In fact, their “death by curation” risk may be larger as they are publicly valuing (by ascribing an admission basis) their special exhibits more than their permanent collections and on-site experience.

      The average person visits a museum once every 19 months (this cycle is longer or shorter depending on the individual person and museum – but that’s the US average). This average holds true whether visitors pay for the special exhibit or not. In other words, people will consider themselves visitors if they interact with free exhibits just as much as if they interact with paid exhibits…but the museum doesn’t derive the same level of financial support. In other words, these museums may not be maximizing their paid visitation. (Of course, several museums have developed appropriations, endowments and sponsorships to subsidize this loss of earned income – and these contributed revenues may or may not effectively offset the earned revenue from ticket sales. However, we often find evidence of price inelasticity in museum admission policies. In other words, the volume of visitation to a museum may not be correspondingly responsive to a change in admission price…including free. The implication of this finding for several museums has been that “free” does not necessarily equate to “significantly more people.”)

      The bottom line of this post still holds true for “free” museums, and, more importantly, data suggests that social interaction is a far more critical component of visitor satisfaction than WHAT folks come to see (with>what). Regardless of their respective admission policies, museums must strive to develop and maintain a reputation as a facilitator of high-quality interactions to remain relevant and viable.

  6. Steven Miller

    We in the museum field have no one to blame but ourselves for the blockbuster phenomenon so revealingly discussed by Colleen. While I have enjoyed every great, special and temporary exhibition I have seen over the years, in my roles as a museum director, curator and trustee during the past four decades, I know from inside museums the pressure that is felt to get people through the front door. This pressure largely comes from trustees. The ranks of these “fiduciaries” are dominated by businessmen (my gender designation is purposeful). All too often these people look at numbers to assess success or failure. Unfortunately, numbers do not always explain how effective or ineffective a museum is in its work. Attendance figures offer a false measure of success. Deciding how well a museum is doing by how many people visit is a lazy metric. The emphasis on this outcome causes serious disruptions in how always scarce museum resources are allocated. Unfortunately, unitl the governing bodies of museums accept the fact that the institutions for which they are responsible are NOT attractions ala Disney World and are NOT profit centers, ala Six Flags, we will be stuck on an exhausting and misguided treadmill.

  7. colleendilen

    Thank you very much for writing this comment, Steven. I think these are thoughtful, relevant points and they indeed belong on this page.

  8. Kaz Maslanka

    It sounds to me you are thinking about dumbing down the Artwork that you show to make more money. Yes, you may keep the destruction of your museum at bay, yet, at the cost of destroying the progression of Art itself. Let me remind you — Your job is to educate not entertain!

  9. colleendilen

    Hi Kaz. Indeed, a primary role of the museum (or nonprofit visitor serving organization) is often to educate. I am not advocating- and the data here does not address or directly support- ANY kind of “dumbing down” of anything. Rather, data indicates that relying on special exhibits puts museums in an unsustainable business cycle. Placing an emphasis on the importance of an organization’s permanent collections and perhaps investing money that would be used to pay for these increasingly-expensive exhibits instead into on-site interpreters (that will enhance the educational component) is a better solution to long-term sustainability.


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