Museums, visitors, and records that shouldn’t be broken

By Maria Magdalena Ziegler

Museums should love visitors. Specially when you are one of the most important museums in the world, and you have received a record 10.2 million visitors in a year. “I’m delighted that the Louvre is so popular,” says the Louvre’s president-director Jean-Luc Martinez. Who wouldn’t? Or better said, who shouldn’t? Well, the Louvre’s president-director Jean-Luc Martinez.  Museums should love visitors as much as they should fear them.

The famous French museum press room revealed last January that the flagship cultural institution of Paris had surpassed the 10 million bar. A record in attendance! But when the number of visitors grows and the space to receive that crowd remains the same, trouble is knocking at the door.

In 2012, the Louvre received 9.72 million visitors but this number dropped dramatically in 2016 when the number marked 7.3 million visitors. This new record in attendance for 2018 is explained by the Louvre itself as follow:

The recovery of tourism in France—specially in Paris—boosted visitor attendance in 2018, as did the flagship exhibition “Delacroix (1798–1863).” Elsewhere in the world, interest in the Louvre was bolstered by the Louvre Abu Dhabi (which recently celebrated its first anniversary), and by Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s “Apes**t” video, with its tribute to some of the museum’s greatest artworks.

monalisa louvre
Visitors gathered at the Louvre Museum to take a look at the Monalisa (in the back).

What about those millions?

Surely the famous video of the Carters at the paradise of the art world made an impact to boost visitors. But tourism has a reputation of passing by instead of visiting. This could be destructive. To change this destructive behavior is almost impossible. And when you count tourists by millions, it is something to be worried about.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an incurable tourist myself, and I am sure I have unwittingly incurred in that destructive behavior more than once. But when you read some comments like these ones, you can’t help to feel discourage about how unconscious people could be: 

“I did not enjoy the louvre, but maybe the art was just not for me. Also the crowds to get to the most popular paints are ridiculous.”

“Far too large, far too many paintings and a lot of them as a non professional art person I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about , and frankly I saw so many people just walking past all the paintings because it’s just too much. A lot of these paintings are just plain ugly.”

“Apart from the Mona Lisa the rest of the gallery is quite tedious. Unless you are a fan of religious paintings there is little of interest. Multiple rooms of pots, nothing to get excited about. Certainly not worth the entrance fee.”

“Buy a book, look at the pictures, and skip the real thing.”

“Apparently there is between 14 to 16 kilometres of boredom on offer at the Louvre. I could not do it.”

(Louvre Museum’s reviews at Tripadvisor)

Louvre visitors
Masses of visitors populate the Louvre Museum halls every day.

What about the works of art?

Now, let’s think about works of art as potentially ill beings at all times. Thinks about museums as hospitals full of sick works of art. Which hospital would let ten million people to visit its patients in a time lapse of 365 days? None. At least none which cares about its patients.

True that works of art are not dying patients (well, not all of them). But when you are 500 years old (as the Monalisa) or more than 2000 years old (as the Victory of Samothrace) at least you deserve to live in quiet and be treated with respect. So, is it that good that a museum has such a gigantic number of visitors every year?

You might disagree if I say that it is, of course, not good. You might call me snob or elitist because I think it is not good that so many aimlessly wander museum halls and rooms, taking selfies without really looking at the masterpieces at all. And let’s face it, the fact that 10 million people visited the Louvre in 2018 doesn’t mean that a good portion of then got something more than a selfie.

It seems that works of art don’t attract attention of the public as works of art, but as icons of pop culture. People use them as proofs that they were there. They are checkpoints. Nothing more. Besides, security for visitors and those works of art is severely compromised with that afflux of people.

Louvre museum
Museography must think about a solution to the Louvre way of presenting its collection

What to do?

We can’t deny that 10 million ticket buyers mean a lot of money that an institution like the Louvre puts into the preservation of the artistic heritage it holds. But isn’t that a little perverse circle? Let them deteriorate to invest money preserving them.

What can be done? Obviously, the Louvre can’t close its doors more than a day a week (yes, it’s closed on Tuesdays). Many have suggested to reduce the number of permitted visitors per day pre-selling a limited number of tickets only online. But that would boost the black market and who knows what else!

But what if instead of focusing on the number of visitors, we move the focus to the space? What if museography has an answer? Expand to other exhibition spaces all over Paris and avoid overcrowding its walls might be an idea monsieur Jean-Luc Martinez should explore. The Louvre is worth a thought (or two). The experience of visiting a museum is as important as the works exhibited. 

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[You might also like to read 10 reason why Art History Matters / Art History Matters even to Wonder Woman / Art History & the Backfire Effect ]

3 thoughts on “Museums, visitors, and records that shouldn’t be broken

  1. As I Read the article I was thinking of the same solution as you! It will be amazing to expand the art exhibits! Also more isolation? like environmental? like they do with old books. Some of these works are just centimeters away from spit, breath, hands!
    I loooved this article!


    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! Hope in the future museums understand how important the experience of a visitor and the well-being of the works should be. 🙂


  2. Pingback: Museums and UX issues – ars.vox

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