01 Dec

Slick or soul-full? Museums and commercial attractions.

Helen Wilkinson

There’s a long history of museums learning – or being exhorted to learn – from commercial attractions. And it goes back further than you might think: at the University of Leicester Museums Alive conference last month I heard a fascinating short presentation from Katie Murray, a PhD student in St Andrews, who is researching the commercial polar exhibitions which the pioneer explorers put on to help finance their expeditions. At a time when most museum presentations of polar exploration concentrated only on the scientific discoveries, the commercial exhibitions met a public desire for insight into the daily lives of the explorers – their sleeping bags, their clothes, what it felt like to be there. And in time museums were pressured into collecting this kind of material too.

Nearer our own time, the founders of the independent museum movement in the 1970s looked to the commercial sector, taking from other visitor attractions the idea that museums might actually be fun, and – perhaps in a deliberate example of ‘Épater la bourgeoisie’ – suggesting that Disneyland had much to teach the museum sector, in terms of ‘visitor friendliness’ and the ability to welcome and offer a good experience to large numbers of people.

I was pondering what today’s lessons might be when I had one of the odder mini-breaks of my life last month and spent a night in a Premier Inn in Stoke-on-Trent so that I could combine taking my kids to see the Staffordshire Hoard with taking them to Alton Towers the next day.

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery was almost entirely deserted on a Sunday afternoon, which perhaps reflects not so much on what the museum has to offer as on its surroundings. (I was delighted to read last week that regeneration is beginning to make an impact in Stoke, but Hanley town centre on a chilly November Sunday was as depressing an urban experience as I’ve had for a long time.)

But the museum is getting a lot of those ‘things you might expect museums to learn from commercial attractions’ absolutely right. Unprompted, a lively and engaging museum assistant came over to talk to my children about the hoard and spent ages pointing out tiny details to intrigue them. She obviously loved the museum and its collection and genuinely cared that visitors had a good time. Compare Alton Towers – some of the staff were friendly, some disinterested and off hand. No one particularly went the extra mile. Staff attitude to visitors? One-nil to the museum.

In the Staffordshire Hoard display, the museum had replica clothes and a helmet to try on and a corner of the gallery designed for photo opportunities. We all know that theme parks are great at offering photos to visitors – but at £10 a time, so I don’t really think that’s a point in the attraction’s favour either.

The museum has a well-stocked shop with a good pocket money range, a reasonable choice of books, plenty of unusual gifts and cards to attract passing trade and a great ceramic selection (of course) where I bought my new favourite mug (from the Moorland Pottery range). Alton Towers doesn’t lack retail outlets, of course, but you’d struggle to buy anything that genuinely captured the flavour of the place and couldn’t have come from any other theme park on the planet. I think that makes it three-nil.

I’d say toilets and catering were pretty much honours even (which is something neither of them should feel particularly proud about). And overall? Well of course, it’s nonsense to compare. On fun Alton Towers obviously won hands down. But I’d say that museums have plenty to teach commercial attractions about the importance of soul, values and genuine warmth over mere brand. At a time when museums have to pay more attention than ever to the bottom line, we should all remember that it’s never ‘all about the bottom line’.