Special exhibits do not do what many cultural organizations think that they do. In fact, they often do the opposite.
The prospect of hosting special exhibits – and blockbuster exhibits, in particular – often makes exhibit-based cultural organizations excited. They sound cool! They spice things up! They are temporary so it makes visitation urgent! It’s new content upon which to underscore expertise! What’s not to like?
A whole bunch, actually.
Hosting special exhibit after special exhibit – and, especially, so-called blockbuster exhibits – often results in more long-term damage than dinero for cultural organizations. I have previously shared information about the phenomenon of “Death by Curation” (also known as Blockbuster Suicide). Essentially, data suggest that blockbuster exhibits often create a negative cycle that challenges the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that come to rely upon them as a primary audience engagement strategy.
This flawed, unsustainable strategy finds organizations over-reliant on visitation from special exhibits – rather than their permanent collections – in order to (hopefully) achieve their attendance and financial goals. 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. It’s another example of our getting so excited about short-term visitation spikes that we forget to zoom out longer than our annual timelines in order to see what is really going on.
Death by Curation happens a lot, but we don’t often talk about it within the exhibit-based cultural industry. I’m not in the business of calling out individual organizations, but if you think of organizations that have fallen on hard financial times, you may note the frequency with which Death By Curation plays a role in their respective struggles. Death by Curation is the business of staking your reputation and attendance goals on a stimulus that will by definition soon leave your organization. It’s the business of making arguably your organization’s best reputational equities ephemeral. It’s pouring sacred budgeting resources into building affinity for a special exhibit rather than a meaningful destination – your organization.
Essentially, Death by Curation happens because organizations focus on special exhibits at the expense of their permanent collections. We put a lot of endorsement energy and marketing expenditures around special exhibits and that makes sense. Special exhibits often cost quite a bit to actualize, and there is an understandable want to aggressively promote them in the hopes of recouping our investments. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Data suggest that an organization’s permanent collections – perhaps more so than special exhibits – matter in terms of overall organizational wellness and sustainability.
The data below contemplate the perceptions of visitors to six visitor-serving organizations that recently (since January 2014) featured a separately ticketed special exhibit in addition to their regular, permanent collections.
Some important numbers before we dive in: The data indicate that 31.7% of visitors only visited the special exhibits – regardless of if their special exhibit admission included access to the permanent collection. This means that though they may have had access to the permanent collection, they report simply visiting the special exhibit and then leaving. Additionally, 34.9% of folks reported visiting both the special exhibit and permanent collection, and 33.4% of visitors reported visiting only the permanent collection.
The special exhibits are different and the organizations are not all of the same type (i.e. all history museums). However, they are all exhibit-based. (Performance-based cultural organizations can eat popcorn on the sidelines here. A form of Death By Curation may reasonably apply to performance-based organizations as well, but I do not have apples-to-apples data to make a comparison.) I also want to mention that these six organizations did not take on the same exhibit so as to preemptively address a possible defense against critical thinking: “There’s no way this applies to my organization!”
Let’s take a look at visitor perceptions concerning (a) value for cost; (b) overall satisfaction; and (c) intent to re-visit within one year. Let’s look at value for cost measures first, because this outcome may be the least surprising and it serves a bit like required reading prior to digging into our next two charts.
The value for cost metric measures, essentially, how much bang a person believes that they got for their buck. You will note that value for cost perceptions are reliably lower for those who purchased the separately ticketed special exhibit – and this, too, makes sense: The special exhibit costs more! However, this metric is not a measure of cost but rather of perceived value – so the goal is for visitors to perceive high value for cost regardless of the expense. In other words, this metric allows that a visitor may perceive a premium experience with a premium cost more favorably than a lower cost, lesser experience. What organizations often forget when they charge an extra fee is that it increases the expectation of an experience worthy of that additional expense.
Another item of note is the generally minor change in value for cost between those who only saw the permanent collection and those who saw both the permanent collection and the special exhibit. This may be surprising, as organizations might guess that someone who saw both permanent and special exhibits might have much higher value for cost perceptions than those who only saw the permanent collection. Depending on the visitor’s perception of the special exhibit, the exhibit risks disproportionately influencing their perceptions and kicking down the value for cost perceptions of those who saw both the special exhibit as well as the permanent collection.
You will note that overall satisfaction is essentially similar among people solely visiting either the special exhibit or permanent collection. Overall satisfaction is 1.18% higher among those who only visited the permanent collection. As previously noted, this is likely due to the role that value for cost plays in the market’s contemplation of overall satisfaction (i.e. lower value for cost perceptions tend to demean overall satisfaction). In no case are either the value for cost or overall satisfaction metrics less among those who visited the permanent collections when compared to those who only visited the special exhibit.
These data should perhaps give you pause and encourage some consideration. Intent to re-visit for those who only visited the special exhibit are dramatically less than indicated for those who visited the permanent collection. Again, this may make sense: Those motivated to visit primarily by a special exhibit may naturally be more inclined to wait until the next special exhibit before re-visiting…and the next special exhibit may not open within the next year. This is one of the negative side effects of special exhibits (all the more magnified when we pour a lot of marketing resources into them): We tie intent to re-visit to temporary experiences and thus encourage potential visitors to wait until we have another one to come back. We invest significant resources in underscoring that our special exhibit is indeed the most “special” experience we offer, and then we are surprised when the market believes us and behaves accordingly.
Death By Curation – and an over-reliance on “bigger and better” special exhibits in general – takes its toll on exhibit-based cultural organizations on the whole. It’s the prevalence of the practice of Death By Curation that “nothing new to do or see” is a top reason why people who have reported specific interest in visiting cultural organizations don’t make it through the door! It is so common that it is a popular reason for not attending cultural organizations. In many ways, we’ve trained the public to believe that our special exhibits are more special than our organizations on the whole – possibly even more important than our missions and the reasons why we exist. We may be sabotaging one of our biggest reputational advantages: That cultural organizations are more than attractions, and that they can and do change communities and the world.
Special exhibits can do good things, of course, when they are carefully considered beyond the quick hit of a temporary attendance spike that comes at the expense of long-term visitation. And perhaps “It’s time to think about our next special exhibit” shouldn’t be a second-nature thought for cultural executives. Perhaps it’s better to think, “What’s the best thing that we can do to walk our talk in terms of who we are and what we stand for?” Sometimes the answer is a special exhibit. However, I’d like to propose that perhaps it is not the only answer – or, even, a frequently appropriate response.
Chasing audiences with special exhibits – and especially blockbuster/blockbuster-wannabe exhibits – isn’t generally sustainable in the long-term. It also calls to question the total costs of developing and actualizing these exhibits as a means of engaging visitors – including the costs to promote them – when compared to potential alternative uses of the same funds. There are many other proven ways to increase visitation that may be more sustainable than tying visitation to special exhibits.
Consider this: Perhaps what is special is what lives inside of your organization. Building affinity for specific items in a permanent collection may be an underrated move. Items in your permanent collection stand for who you are, and not simply what might be hot right now.