Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museums and the Box Office

‘Patrick Greene: museums make for boffo box office’ by Daily Review May 13 2014

British-born Patrick Greene is the chief executive officer of Museums Victoria, a state government agency that includes its flagship Melbourne Museum in Carlton as well as the Immigration Museum and Scienceworks located in other parts of Melbourne. Before Greene moved to Australia in 2002 he was the director of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Greene is also an archaeologist and the author of several books specialising in Britain’s medieval period. Since he arrived in Melbourne the Melbourne Museum has been at the forefront of staging “blockbuster” shows working with the Victorian Government’s innovative “Winter Masterpieces” events with big shows largely funded through the Victorian major Events Company often in tandem with third party producers.

Some of these shows have attracted huge numbers of paying visitors to the museum, which is situated in a striking Denton Corker Marshall building next to the historic Royal Exhibition Building.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs attracted  close to 800,000 people during a six month residency in 2011. Other hits in recent years have included Titanic: the Artefact Exhibition (481,000 in 2010) and A Day in Pompeii (333,000 in 2009).

The box office success of some of these shows has led to the same debates about blockbusters that surround our major art galleries. Do they contribute to a “dumbing down” of culture and the shift of resources from scholarship to entertainment?

Dr Greene in the Q and A below believes blockbusters can be both informative and entertaining. He says museums have always been both.

People once associated museums with, taxidermy, dioramas and “learning”. When did museums become places of “entertainment”?

Entertainment has always been part of the mix – as demonstrated by Museum Victoria’s first Director, Professor Frederick McCoy, when he displayed a diorama of gorillas which he spruiked in his weekly column in The Argus.

Although the ways in which people engage with museums have changed over time, as has the delivery of exhibitions, museums are essentially still places of knowledge and learning. Our audience research shows that visitors’ desire to learn and museums’ ability to teach in a different way to educational institutions continues to be a core reason for visiting.

Has the blockbuster mentality been good to museums?

International “blockbuster” exhibitions benefit not only museums but also their local economies. High profile exhibitions are major draw cards for interstate and international visitors, and they also provide locals with an opportunity to experience never-before-seen international exhibitions.

Our audience research shows that visitors to Museum Victoria major exhibitions are much more likely to return for future exhibitions. These visitors are not just coming to the Museum, but are also staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping at retail destinations.

Melburnians benefit by having remarkable collections brought to their city – most recently we have transported our visitors to ancient Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, and currently to the world of the Aztecs in Mexico.

It is also important to note that major touring exhibitions are only one part of what we do at Museum Victoria. At all of our museums, it is vital that we provide adult visitors, parents and families, teachers and students with exhibitions and programs that are innovative, contemporary and appealing. While touring exhibitions are undoubtedly successful at drawing in visitors from both near and far, it is our permanent exhibition offerings that keep visitors coming back – day after day.

You have mounted blockbusters with commercial operators. Does this put the museum at financial risk if you don’t get the numbers needed? In these cases is the museum paid a fee or do you take a percentage of box office?

The arrangement varies with each exhibition and part of the process is to minimise risk. That said, even with the best planning we are aware that not every exhibition will produce the response from visitors that we hoped for and that there is an inherent risk with every exhibition. Luckily, our most recent touring hall exhibition at Melbourne Museum, Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style, reached – and slightly exceeded – projections.

Most – possibly all – of the “blockbuster” shows at Melbourne Museum have been imported. Are there plans for a major museum show which you can export around the county and the world?

Yes, we would love to do that, and we are working on ideas at present. That said, museums in Australia will always find it more difficult to tour exhibition, with higher costs of freight and insurance due to the distances from our major markets. In contrast, we have been able to sell or lease shows developed by our staff at the Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks on over 50 occasions to planetariums on every continent.

Who is your audience for Melbourne Museum and where do they come from?

The audience mix for our three museums (Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks Museum and the Immigration Museum) is different in each case, so we get many interstate and international visitors to Melbourne Museum and the Immigration Museum and comparatively few to Scienceworks. Our key local audience is families with a great diversity compared to many cultural venues – coming from across the city, especially outer Melbourne, and with good representation from regional Victoria

What audience would you like to reach that you haven’t so far?

We would like to reach an audience who have never been to our museums before and those that have only been to our museums once and have not returned. Special activities, such as the evening SmartBar events at the Melbourne Museum, and festivals such as the recent Viva Mexico at the Immigration Museum, are proving excellent ways of introducing our museums to new visitors – and many return, having enjoyed the experience.

What are the benefits of having an IMAX cinema on your premises?

Having an IMAX cinema at Melbourne Museum provides visitors with a different offering, yet one that complements exhibitions at the museum with films on the natural world and space science for example.  It is the world’s third largest screen and we have recently invested in new digital projection equipment and sound system, so it is our intention to provide the best cinema experience.  We also show feature films- Gravity has proved a great success!  It produces a financial surplus each year which is ploughed back into the Museum’s funds.

What are the growing trends in the museum world?

Everything digital: the reach of museums has increased enormously, and they have proved adept at taking advantage of emerging technologies to reach new global audiences.

Participation is other driving force – people want to be involved rather than passive, and we must respond to that.

How will technology continue to influence the museum visitor’s experience?

At Museum Victoria, we view technology as a tool to enhance storytelling, and therefore enhance the experience of the visitor. Our long-term exhibitions in particular incorporate the latest technology available, and offer some of the best of museum experiences worldwide – as our success in international awards has demonstrated.

For example, in First Peoples – a landmark new long-term exhibition opened last year in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum – there are numerous high technology elements, including digital labels for many objects, which can deliver much more information to the visitor than traditional print labels. There is also a visually beautiful, immersive light and sound experience telling the story of Bunjil (the wedge-tailed eagle), and a virtual human guide throughout the exhibition, “the Messenger”.

At Scienceworks, the new major long-term exhibition Think Ahead, looking at the way we imagine the future, also offers numerous engaging and learning experiences that utilise innovative technology. Visitors are able to “redesign” their bodies on an interactive, life-size, real-time screen, design their own 3D future city with vertical gardens and flying car factories and step inside an immersive space-craft experience.

How hard is it to get sponsorship for museum shows compared to art galleries?

Broadly speaking, the trend nationally and internationally is that museums attract less corporate sponsorship than art galleries. This is due in large part to a difference in audience: traditionally, art gallery audiences represent the top end of the socio-economic ladder and have greater appeal to corporations looking to market themselves to new audiences.

The nature of sponsorships are also changing – corporations are now looking at brand-building through sponsorship in ways that are far more sophisticated than simply putting their logo on a wall or in an ad. These days, the most successful corporate relationships are long-term partnerships that build on both partners’ individual strengths.

Museums hold a unique place in our society as custodians of our nation’s memories and stories. There is a richness and credibility there that is immensely valuable to many corporations looking to develop their brands.

Are museums in Australia seen as part of the arts industry?

Yes, Museum Victoria is a very much a part of the arts and cultural industries, but due to our multidisciplinary nature, the museum’s activities also extend well beyond the arts sector – which I believe is better described by the broader term, the cultural sector.

As the State Museum for Victoria, we operate four venues – Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks and the Royal Exhibition building – and are responsible for care of the State Collection of 17 million objects, documents, photographs and specimens.

Museum Victoria experts conduct internationally significant research across the fields of science and humanities, related to and inspired by 160 years of collecting. This research furthers what we know about the social and natural history of Victoria and beyond.

What is the relationship between your Museum and the Australia Council and Arts Victoria?

Museum Victoria is primarily funded by the State Government, through Arts Victoria, with which we have a close relationship. We have limited interaction with the Australia Council for the Arts, but we have received support through the Visions of Australia Touring Fund, for example for our The Art of Science exhibition that has been touring regional Victoria and to Adelaide and Sydney since 2012.

How do these relationships compare to those in Britain?

The situation here in Australia is quite different to that in Britain – and in fact there are distinct differences between each of the countries of the UK, with Culture a responsibility of devolved governments. The Arts Council for England has a strong responsibility for museums, alongside the other manifestations of cultural activity. It is a curiosity of history that in Australia there is no equivalent, despite the strength and diversity of museums in this country.

What would be the best model in your opinion?

I believe a national body that included museums in its remit would be advantageous, but there is no sign that it will happen. In the meantime, industry bodies such as Museums Australia and the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (of which I am chair) fill the gap to an extent.

What shows do you want to present at both Melbourne Museum and Scienceworks to present?

We are guided by several factors – the areas of expertise that we have in our staff, the collections we care for, subjects of importance to the community and the interests of our audiences. In August we open an exhibition at Melbourne Museum about the First World War called Love and Sorrow, examining the impact of the conflict on people of Victoria. Later in the year Deep Oceans opens at Scienceworks – marine science is one of the strengths of the Museum Victoria’s research program. Meanwhile, we are enjoying our connections with the Victoria’s Mexican community that have come to the fore as a result of the current major exhibition, Aztecs, at Melbourne Museum.


Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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