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Go big or go home: how blockbuster exhibitions are saving museums

“Blockbuster” is no longer a term reserved for high-grossing movies or best-selling novels. Turns out, it can also refer to museum culture.

Attendance figures will always be a key battleground for museums. Only by posting substantial visitor numbers can an art gallery or historical site claim to play a role in the forging of cultural identity and conversation. Yet, at a time when even cinemas and theme parks are struggling to draw people out from behind their device screens, museums need to come up with new ways to show off their exhibits and engage with the public. One way to accomplish this is to launch a blockbuster exhibition.

Blockbuster exhibitions within museums can be seen as the headline acts – attention grabbing showcases that draw people in a way that smaller, low-key exhibits simply cannot. Often focusing on a single artist or cultural figure, blockbuster exhibitions can be costly to put on and market but they should ultimately drive both direct and indirect revenue, as well as raising the profile and prestige of a venue.

At the heart of every blockbuster exhibition needs to be a name. Whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci, Frida Kahlo or even Winnie the Pooh, the headline act needs to be someone or something that is engrained in the public consciousness. Alternatively, the hook may be focused on a popular theme such as gaming or perhaps World War II.

Examples of blockbuster exhibitions?

The British Museum

The Treasures of Tutankhamun is thought by many to be the original blockbuster exhibition. When it first opened in London in 1972, it was greeted by queues of people snaking out of the doors of the British Museum and down the street. Initially planned to run from April to September of that year, such was the success of the collection that the exhibit remained until the December of that year.

British Museum Blockbuster

Image: Tutankhamun at the British Museum (Alamy)

From there, Treasures of Tutankhamun toured the USA, taking in Washington DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, LA and New York. Not only did it serve to introduce millions of people to the wonders of Ancient Egypt but it also served to raise the profile of the British Museum for many years to come.

The V&A

One of the most prominent UK exhibitions in recent times was opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2016, focusing on the art, music, films and life of David Bowie. David Bowie Is welcomed its first visitors just months after the singer’s death, charting Bowie’s career through photographs, album covers, songs, 3D sound simulations and video art to much acclaim.

Co-curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, David Bowie Is became the fastest-selling exhibition in the Museum’s history as it served to demonstrate how the icon influenced pop culture through the later part of the 20th century and into the modern day. Such was the success of the exhibition and documentary that it later toured around the world to an estimated total audience of 2,000,000.

The Tate Modern

Similarly, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, held at London’s Tate Modern in 2014, became the museum’s most successful exhibition to date. Bringing together the artist’s iconic cut-out pictures made in the later stages of his career proved irresistible to visitors. Collecting all of these pieces in one space served to show how influential the artist’s pictures have been in shaping the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York certainly knows how to create a blockbuster exhibition. They launch a fashion exhibition every year, and make each one an event by opening it with the star-studded Met Gala Ball. Celebrity artists and designers curate the event alongside Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, using the opportunity to showcase their take on artistic fashions inspired by that year’s chosen theme. 2018’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imaginations was the most visited museum exhibition in the world that year.

The benefits of blockbuster exhibitions

First and foremost, successful blockbuster exhibitions draw the crowds. A prime example of this would be the V&A, which saw a 5% increase in visitor numbers in 2018 thanks to three key exhibitions Video games: design/play/disrupt; Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up and Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic.

While the stakes are undoubtedly higher in the case of a blockbuster exhibition and the demands on the museum’s marketing budget are typically greater, the rewards can be significant. A successful run can provide a platform to grow the museum’s brand reputation and draw in sponsors.

Where an exhibition goes on tour, like David Bowie is, the publicity for the host museum can serve to draw international visitors for many years to come. The value of tie-in merchandise and downloadable content, can also contribute to the bottom line after an exhibition has ended.

Should we be concerned about a reliance on large-scale exhibitions?

Blockbuster exhibitions aren’t without their drawbacks, of course. The hangover after an exhibition ends can be difficult to manage. And a museum is required to quickly reposition itself once an exhibit closes.

If a museum is too closely associated with a particular exhibition, it’s highly likely that visitor figures will dip in the weeks and months after the run ends. This challenge may also serve to undermine the other collections and exhibits on show across the museum.

The high cost of staging blockbuster exhibitions has also attracted criticism from some museum leaders.

And what about those times when a blockbuster doesn’t receive the public acclaim or rave reviews that are anticipated? For every successful exhibition, there is one that fails to generate a positive return on investment.

How else can museums keep visitors intrigued?

As the name suggests, blockbuster exhibitions are big, impressive, crowd-pleasing and expensive, but it’s certainly not the only way for museums to succeed in attracting visitors and earning a positive response.

Shining a light on local talent or forgotten minorities can be a great way to appeal to a smaller but more committed niche. One great example of this is the High Museum in Atlanta, where it is reported that the number of non-white visitors in response to an exhibition showcasing the work of talented artists of colour from the local community.

Running community projects is another way to engage visitors. By holding events for young children, LGBTQ+ groups or the elderly, a museum can drive footfall and cultivate an important sense of inclusivity.

Just as we find in the world of cinema, it’s important that there remains space for both big budget blockbusters and smaller, less mainstream alternatives that bring something different to the table.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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