National museums in the UK do not charge entrance fees to view their permanent exhibits. However, they do charge, often quite high, fees to view special temporary exhibitions. This is nothing new. In 1968, I saw superb exhibition at the Royal Academy about the Bauhaus school, founded in pre-WW2 Germany. It was so excellent that I visited it on three separate occasions. Likewise, with a wonderful exhibition about Tutankhamen, also held at the Royal Academy.
Now, several decades later, the museums and galleries have caught on to the idea of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These try to attract vast numbers of visitors, who would not nomally visit the institution where they are being held. They often succeed in drawing the crowds, but by slightly devious means. For example, recently the Royal Academy held an exhibition called: “RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY. Van Dyck to Cezanne”. I thought, as I am sure many other visitors believed, that this was primarily an exhibition of works by Rubens. Well, it was not. There were a few paintings by this great master diluted by a far larger number of works by other artists. It would have been more honest, but less ‘sexy’ and attractive to the public, to have called this exhibition something like “THE LEGACY OF RUBENS”.
My wife visited the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, a real crowd-puller called “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. Who cannot resist seeing pictures by Van Gogh? Few, judging by the crowds of people jammed into the rooms where the exhibition is being held. And, how many paintings and other works by the man who cut off his own ear were on show. There were only a few. The rest of the show was of paintings by other artists, who were definitely not of interest to the bulk of the visitors, who had paid £18 a head to see a Van Gogh show. Clearly the name of the exhibition draws in the ‘punters’.
As with the Van Gogh exhibition, the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery was also disappointing. A few works by the great Italian master were vastly outnumbered by works produced by inferior artists, in whom most visitors were uninterested. And, most of the ‘fillers’ in the exhibition had only tenuous connections with Leonardo.
Of course, not all blockbuster exhibitions fail to live up to their promise. Apparently, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a brilliant show that concentrated on the subject promised by the exhibition’s name. Another really good temporary exhibition, which attracted an entry fee, was one dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern.
Given the absence of entrance fees and the constant insufficiency of public funds, our national museums and galleries need to raise as much money as possible. The blockbuster exhibitions must be a good way of doing this. It would be better if their naming was a little more related to what the visitor is likely to see.