Tourism rumblings around Canberra’s Museums. The truth about visitor numbers in 2004.
"My wife's gone back looking for Eternity."
There's something mythical about this visitor's response to the National Museum of Australia. Is his wife a latter-day Persephone? Did she find Eternity? Did he ever find his wife again, waiting, I suppose, at some earthly boundary? I just hope she didn't become a pillar of salt.
Though this couple may have been bemused by the map of the universe within the NMA, another said "The architecture is great - you can go off on little tangents." Isn't this what museums are for - myth making, exploring the universe within ourselves? Keeping places. Remembering places. Recognising ourselves. Finding where we belong.
Other visitors said, "Identifying with things from our past like Vegemite ads, school milk, bush tucker, the Pelaco ad" and "Fantastic overview of our Australian story, especially the Aboriginal story." The First Australians Gallery is the most popular at the NMA, and the first point of call for international visitors.
Then, as large as life, there's Tetsuya Wakuda at the National Portrait Gallery. Hails originally from Hamamatsu, Japan. "Make simplicity seem like abundance", he says, smiling over the kitchen bench in his Sydney sushi restaurant. I thought that was a line from the New Testament, about loaves and fishes. Or it's pure Japanese Zen. Hasn't Australia become an amazing place!
My interest in museum visitors arose in the recent flurry of worry about falling numbers, giving the impression that Canberra's tourist industry is coming apart at the seams. I thought, is ever-increasing tourist numbers the main purpose of our Federally funded institutions - the War Memorial, National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and Old Parliament House, new Parliament House, National Film and Sound Archives, the National Archives, and National Gallery of Australia? Are they failing in their duty?
Early New Year is not an easy time to get to everybody involved, but from the War Memorial, NMA, NPG and OPH it's clear the stories of doom and disaster are not the truth. This doesn't mean our big attractions can sit back on their laurels, but...
Linda Ferguson is the collector and analyser of visitor statistics at the War Memorial. Her figures show a 1 per cent increase in 2004 over 2003, but the first half of the year was up and the second half down. Yet OPH numbers show an average increase of about 2% each month from July to December 2004 compared with the same months in 2003. Outside factors like air fares and petrol prices seem to be the main concern. NMA permanent exhibition figures show a drop from the Sydney region late in the year but increases from Melbourne, Brisbane and especially Adelaide where airfare specials were laid on, while they also show 188 per cent increased attendance over 2003 at their travelling exhibitions.
The institutions, as they always have, can expect their different exhibitions to attract different numbers of people. An important or worthwhile exhibition should not be mounted simply on the basis of attracting the largest possible number. The issues I think the tourist industry should focus on are the outside factors which enable or prevent the potential numbers from getting here.
Especially they need to seriously promote Canberra as the national capital to international markets. Here the figures for recent years show a decline in the numbers and proportion of international visitors to Australia choosing to visit Canberra. How does this compare, for example, with Washington DC? Far too many overseas visitors still think Sydney is Australia's capital. The strongest attraction to come here is Aboriginal culture in the First Australians Gallery at NMA and Aboriginal art at the National Gallery. Ironic, isn't it? I haven't got figures on visitors to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Talking to NMA Director Craddock Morton and his Director of Public Affairs Martin Portus, OPH Programs and Marketing Manager Sandy Clugston, NPG's Marketing Manager Suzie Campbell, War Memorial's Exhibitions Manager Helen Withnell and NMA's equivalent of Linda Ferguson, Susan Tonkin,raised more than tourist housekeeping issues. Each institution, being funded by the Federal Government, has its own raison d'etre, often based in formal legislation. The War Memorial, for example, is essentially a place of living ceremony and ritual. Providing its services is a national duty to all Australians, supported by its research and exhibition work. Old Parliament House is, too, more than a museum - it's a heritage site where people experience democracy as it was, moving on to new Parliament House for the way things are now. The National Portrait Gallery is both an art gallery and a museum of national icons, while both NPG and the National Museum work by being closely involved with people's stories - personal and community - so people come literally to see their own history in the exhibitions.
Making all this happen is a special artform. This is not about pumping up tourist numbers by offering special deals. It's about integrity of purpose, honesty on display, stimulation of understanding, depth of experience - all those elements that make for a good work of art. Our institutions are well up with international standards. This year, for example, the War Memorial collaborates with the Canadian War Museum and the British Imperial War Museum in an exhibition of World War II Art opening in Ottawa in May and here in November, while the International Museum Theatre Association will meet at NMA in October. In addition our institutions' outreach programs, touring across the nation and including such regulars as Talkback Classroom which goes international this year, are world leaders. But, like a good theatrical production, you need to know your audience. And this is where Linda Ferguson has come up with an interesting analysis.
Ferguson's "segmentation" studies have revealed four kinds of visitors. People who personally identify with the experience in the place they visit. People who seek to gain knowledge from their experience when they visit. People who like to be swept up in the experience, for fun, enjoyment, or satisfaction. People who visit as part of a bonding experience with the other people who come with them. In the case of the War Memorial on which she focussed, the tendency was for the first group to be mid-fifties and older, for whom the memories of the past were deeply emotional experiences. The second group tended to be middle-aged (35 to 55), the third group younger adults, while the fourth group were often family groups where the generations overlapped. In other places, like the National Museum, there is obviously a fifth group of the young for whom live story-telling and exploring stimulating experiences is the key.
This kind of understanding of the audience can help directors of these institutions link the expectations expressed in their formal aims with the obvious need to keep people rolling through the doors. An exhibition which entails an extra cost needs first to have integrity of content and then all the variety of presentation to cater for the audience, or to be clearly targeted in format to satisfy the needs of particular audiences (with promotion to match). All the national institutions have for many years been in close cooperative contact, which means Ferguson's work is a strength for the whole system.
The tourist industry must invest much more in promoting Canberra's speciality - the national institutions - just as Washington DC does. But it should be recognised that it is not the job of the institutions to focus their efforts on boosting the tourist industry. It's the tourist industry's job to put the institutions on the tourist map. The quality is there, and is more than competitive internationally. If local businesses want to turn a penny, and local government wants to support them, then they must work to get the quality message out.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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