Notes From an Exhibition

Thoughts on a visit to the British Museum. On 27 April, I went to view ‘Sicily: Culture and Conquest’. I’ve long been fascinated by all aspects of Sicilian culture and am looking forward to revisiting the island one day, so went to this exhibition with some anticipation. Sadly, I was left so disappointed I felt I had to provide feedback. Here is my note to the Museum and their note in reply.

Visit: 27 April at 14:30 to the Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition.

This is my feedback on my visit to that exhibition. I would have provided some at the time, but the automated feedback at the exit gate was not working. I (together with another visitor) reported this to two employees.

So, in a nutshell, the exhibition doesn’t work and here’s why. It’s crowded into too small a space, low lighting (I presume for the protection of the exhibits) and a great deal of reading to do mean that visitors have to stand very close to the displays. And, as you know, the displays are almost all of small, highly detailed items which require close examination. The ratio of, what appears to be, essential reading text to exhibits also means visitors move slowly (there were elderly and infirm people there when I visited, as well as two visitors in wheelchairs, so this also raises questions of accessibility). This text-heavy approach must also be very heavy-going for non-English speakers – even with the frequent repetition of information. Bottlenecks are inevitable in these circumstances. Sadly, I found the whole experience claustrophobic and frustrating.

I write as a lifelong fan of, and regular visitor to, the British Museum and one who has donated whatever money I could afford over the years to its upkeep. Today, I was left with the feeling that I’d sooner have put my ten pounds straight in the donation box.

Three positive notes to end this email:
1. Very polite and helpful staff throughout the Museum.

2. Great restaurant – enjoyed the Sicilian menu.

3. I love the Museum (I just know it can do better).

Kind regards

Dear Jane,

Thank you for your email regarding your recent visit to the Sicily exhibition. I was so sorry to hear you had a less than satisfactory visit and that you felt it was overcrowded.

The Museum wants as many people as possible to enjoy the exhibition and to experience it in the best possible conditions, in comfort and in safety. In order to do this we set a level of visitor numbers which we feel is appropriate at the start of the run. This number, usually calculated by the hour, is based on the size of the gallery, the type of exhibition layout and on our fire regulations. We manage this level by timed entry. I am sorry the balance we made on this occasion was not right for you.

I’m also sorry that you felt the presentation of the text to accompany the exhibits was not satisfactory. when we plan our exhibitions we are mindful that our visitors may have differing needs in terms of visual and physical access to objects and their associated texts. We work closely with an access officer to test type size and colour, text heights and the lighting of labels during the design development process. Indeed, in response to visitor comments from past exhibitions we have been steadily increasing the size of type on our labels.

There is, of course, a fine balance to be made in this regard. Not all the decisions we would like to make are complimentary. For example, we must consider with type size the amount of space available for labels adjacent to associated objects and the extent of narrative our curators would wish to present. However, it is disappointing for me to hear from visitors such as yourself that we did not get the balance right on this occasion. Please be assured we will continue to review this matter and in future make adjustments when we can. You may like to know we provide large printed guides in the gallery which contain the entire text of the exhibition for visitors who would prefer a larger type size when reading. These guides are freely available in the gallery for our visitors to use.

I am glad that you thought the staff were polite and helpful on your visit and that the Sicilian inspired food in the restaurant was enjoyable. These comments have all been passed on to the relevant departments and I’m sure the staff involved will be most appreciative of your feedback.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with us – your feedback is greatly valued by the Museum. We hope to welcome you back to the British Museum again soon.

Kind regards
The reply is friendly and polite and arrived promptly (10 working days), but it left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. An exhibition should be a well-told story with thoughtful illustration, this one was a very rough first draft.

In truth, I’d also hoped for a return of the Motye charioteer for this exhibition (still, possibly, my favorite sculpture), but it wasn’t there and was simply represented by a very small photograph in one of the display cabinets. A full-size photograph would have been more appropriate (it’s too soon to hope for a hologram), especially as there was wall space otherwise occupied by tourist-board-worthy aerial shots of various harbors. 

I will, of course, return to the British Museum – I can’t imagine life without it. As I said, I just know it can do better.

2 thoughts on “Notes From an Exhibition

  1. Hi Jane,
    I have recently been to the Drents Museum in Assen in the Netherlands with my aunt. We visited the exhibition about the Maya’s. Very interesting, beautiful and educative but we also made almost the same complaints as you at the end of our visit to the personal at the reception.
    Too crowded, the text with the displays were to small and not enough light. Wheelchairs that did not have enough space so paths were blocked because of it while people were reading.
    It was all together very interesting and beautiful but set up in a big space using not enough space for the corridors, while around it there was space enough. The set up was meant to look like a temple and a very nice idea but the space in between for the paths was just to narrow.

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Debby. I’m sorry you had a similar experience and remain convinced that these situations are entirely avoidable.

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