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Should science centers and museums spend resources on hosting blockbuster exhibitions? Why or why not?

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the January/February 2013 issue of Dimensions magazine.

“If they had more special exhibitions, then we’d get a membership and come more often.”
Science Museum of Minnesota visitor, August 2011

Our most recent audience survey, conducted in 2011 (n=830), suggests that there are factors beyond immediate attendance to blockbuster exhibitions to consider. For instance, 85% of visitors responded that they would be more likely to visit the museum more frequently if they knew something was different or had changed. While visitors’ intentions do not necessarily lead to actions, blockbuster exhibitions may inform visitors’ perceptions of change at the museum and encourage repeat visits and new memberships.

Gayra Ostgaard, museum evaluator 2
Gretchen Haupt, museum evaluator 1
Al Onkka, museum evaluator 2
Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul

 
This is a complex question. I have been responsible for bringing traveling exhibitions into my respective institutions for over 20 years and I have researched both the marketing/product side as well as the financial aspects of this question. I have come to the following conclusions:

  • Blockbuster exhibitions may not necessarily be as much of a huge “gate” revenue generator as you may think. After paying all of the costs, both direct and indirect, associated with bringing them in, your net profit may not be any larger than similar profits made from much less costly exhibitions. Careful research and planning are key.
  • However, blockbuster exhibitions greatly expand your marketing reach, and we all know that first and foremost, traveling exhibitions are marketing tools. And we can’t forget about their power to generate greater amounts of spin-off revenue. Gate-take versus exhibition fees may yield a less than anticipated net revenue, but all those feet through the door mean higher membership sales and renewals, bigger retail and café sales, fee-based program and school field trip sales, and the like. Advice? The greater the potential of the exhibition to attract new audiences, the farther out you need to plan.
  • Blockbuster exhibitions have the potential to backfire on you. Imagine all of those first time visitors now streaming through your door to see this fabulous thing—but what do they see when they leave the exhibition and wander through the rest of your institution? If they don’t like what they see, they won’t be back. And they’ll tell their friends, “Yes, the exhibition was great, but the rest of the place… (insert something unflattering here).” As Marilyn Hood wisely advised many years ago, “Get your current house in order before attempting to attract new audiences.” Considering that many, if not most, of us scrape together the funds needed to bring in a blockbuster at the expense of our core product, this puts us on a dangerous downward spiral. My advice? Make sure your entire institution shines when that blockbuster comes in. Then, those new audiences you caught will be audiences you keep. Yes, that adds a few more costly line items to your budget. But it’s money well spent.

Kim Hunter, senior director, exhibit development, Orlando Science Center, Florida

 
While visiting exhibitions can provide a short-term boost in public interest, revenue, and forwarding your core education mission, science centers and museums are best served by investing their resources in internal innovation, growth, and human capital. You’re best served by strengthening your institution for year-round attraction, innovation, and education for long-term sustainability.

Ben Cober, director of business development and research, PGAV Destinations, St. Louis, Missouri

 
There is no single, definitive answer. The variables are numerous—museum location; timing of venue; ability to market, staff, and maintain the exhibition; local competition; topic and presentation style of the exhibition; exhibition lease requirements; availability of sponsors; facility capabilities; expected/required outcomes; relationship to mission; museum personality, etc. Each institution must consider this long list of variables, calculate its willingness to take risks in view of the potential for popular and economic success, and make decisions based on its own circumstances.

Robert (Mac) West, president, Informal Learning Experiences, Denver

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their institutions or of ASTC.

About the image: Visitors pack the lobby at the Orlando Science Center. Photo courtesy RF Photography