Inside the Collection

The league table: The world’s most popular museums and exhibitions

Crowds out the front of the British Museum, a grand classical style building
Crowds at the British Museum. Image courtesy of Drumaboy shared with a Creative Commons license

The Art Newspaper’s annual survey of the world’s most popular museums and exhibitions is just out. For anyone who wants to know what brings people to museums in big numbers, this is required reading. You can download the pdf here

Some of the results are predictable: The Louvre remains the most visited museum in the world (8.5 million visitors during 2010) followed by the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In Australia the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art head the list with 1.8 million visitors during 2010. Next up is the National Gallery of Victoria’s two museums and the Melbourne Museum.

Interior view of a museum looking through classical archways
Image courtesy of PB-PSBear, shared with a creative commons license

Sydney’s top museum attraction is the Art Gallery of NSW though its usual third or fourth place in the Australian rankings is usurped for 2010 by Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (1.1 million), largely as a result of ACME’s hosting the hugely successful Tim Burton show from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

And it’s the exhibitions that make the most interesting reading. The Art Newspaper focuses on art museums of course, so natural history, technology and science museums are largely ignored. Yet numerous design and decorative arts exhibitions and museums make the lists. In fact the third most popular exhibition world-wide was Designing the Lincoln Memorial, which attracted almost three million visitors to the Washington National Gallery. No doubt the exhibition’s proximity to the actual Lincoln Memorial (no minor attraction in itself) helped, but other more esoteric design shows also did well.

Among these was MOMA’s Bauhaus 1919-33: Workshops for Modernity, the Pompidou’s Patrick Jouin, the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright and the Serpentine Gallery’s Jean Nouvel – big design names clearly have allure, even if a couple of them are still alive and working!

Most of the popular dec arts shows were frock affairs though interestingly retrospectives on YSL and Cartier at Paris and San Francisco drew fewer people than Hats: An anthology by Stephen Jones at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. This Victoria & Albert show did better in Brisbane than at its home museum in London.

In certain museums it is an item of faith that cultural phenomenon with mainstream popularity will produce popular exhibitions. The survey doesn’t contain much evidence of this. Instead, what is clear is the popularity of the difficult and the esoteric – for example contemporary art. Often dismissed as a minority taste, numerous contemporary art shows are a feature of the top 30 exhibitions, including those featuring Rebecca Horn, Regina Silveira, Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge (who we’ve been lucky to enjoy in Sydney thanks to the MCA and Biennale).

The survey is also further evidence of increased museum attendance world-wide, underlined by healthy attendances at museums in China, Japan, Korea, India and Brazil. In fact, the most popular exhibition in 2010 was the Tokyo National Museum’s Hasegawa Tohaku, marking the four hundredth anniversary of this home-grown artist. More than 12,000 people visited daily (one presumes 24-hour opening).

Although the usual blockbuster names are in evidence – Picasso, Van Gogh, Turner et al – scrolling down the list produced plentiful evidence than even apparently arcane subjects can draw hundred of visitors per day. For example: One hundred years of business in Italy (Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Rome) Curious George saves the day (Jewish Museum, New York) La Dolce Vita: 1950s Italian celebrities (Mercati di Tiaino, Rome) and The man with the case: A history of baggage (Borgo Medievale, Turin).

Too many exhibitions, not enough time.

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