Behind the scenes tours in museums

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d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 20.05.2016

A few weeks ago, while attending a conference (on visitor studies, incidentally) in London, I treated myself to a place on the Behind the Scenes Spirit Collection Tour at the Natural History Museum. The name of the tour sounds as mysterious as some of the things I was able to see: a collection of fascinating, and sometimes bizarre-looking, animals kept in glass jars and preserved in alcohol (hence the name “spirit collection”). It felt special to enter those parts of the museum that are not usually open to the public and see where museum staff and researchers operate behind the exhibition spaces.

While the Natural History Museum has been offering these tours for nearly 15 years, similar tours are increasingly making appearances in other museums and institutions around the world. We can find behind the scenes or backstage tours of libraries, concert halls, theatres, zoos, aquariums, film studios, amusement parks and even monuments. So, why are museums offering these tours, and what do they aim to achieve? What format do they take? Whose interests do they serve, and do they offer real value for museums or visitors? And what about Luxembourg – are our museums following the trend?

As mentioned above, the Natural History Museum has been organising behind the scenes tours of its Darwin Centre since 2002, when Phase One of the centre opened. The tours pursue the same aim as the Darwin Centre itself: to give visitors a better understanding of the scientific research that is going on at the museum and of its importance. Besides, the tours enable visitors to see more of the centre’s collection. In fact, the spirit collection comprises 22 million specimens, preserved in approximately 450 000 jars, of which only a few are on public display. Gaining access to places that are usually marked Staff Only and being given a glimpse of the 25 000 shelves of specimens, in a small group and away from the crowds, makes visitors feel as if they have been granted a special privilege. And it is a real privilege, as people have to pay for it. As national museums in the United Kingdom offer free admission to their permanent collections, these tours provide them with an additional source of revenue – even if this is modest compared with the money generated by some of the most popular temporary exhibitions. In Luxembourg, where most museums charge for adult entrance anyway, the reasons for offering similar tours may differ in some respects.

Behind the scenes tours give visitors the chance not only to learn more about the research and collection but also to question staff. Similar to open research laboratories, or laboratories-in-the-museum, this interaction has the potential to create “a space for dialogue and discussion between researchers and visitors”1 and between staff and visitors. Public participation and collaboration between amateur and professional scientists (see the concept of citizen science, for example) is of particular importance for the Luxembourg Musée national d’histoire naturelle, which has been taking a similar approach by organising occasional tours of its collection. Those who join the tours can discover more of the museum’s collection (on-site and sometimes in their off-site storage facility), see the different departments, and meet the people who work there.

Although enriching and exciting for visitors, it becomes apparent that behind the scenes tours place several demands on museums. Obviously, it starts with a certain willingness to be transparent, meaning a readiness to open the doors to areas that are normally off-limits and welcome groups of (mostly accompanied) meandering and cu­rious visitors. But these tours also require the necessary staff to guide people around and, in some cases, time and effort from employees to explain their work and answer questions. Furthermore, facilities need to be readily accessible to museum visitors: given that a significant share of museum collections is stored off-site, visits to those places are more difficult to coordinate.

However, there are other ways of giving visitors an insight into what happens behind closed doors. Between 2010 and 2013, the Villa Vauban organised a series of talks on the work involved in preparing an exhibition. Through a presentation of photos and materials that she uses in her restoration room, Gisèle Reuter, the conservator-restorer at the city’s two museums, described some aspects of her work to the public; for example, tracing the origin of different works of art, looking at how artists worked in the past, and identifying the special characteristics of the materials they used.

Other possibilities, which can even reach audiences who are physically separated from the museum building, include putting entire collections online and getting involved in initiatives on social media. These social media initiatives can originate from inside or outside a museum. The annual Ask a Curator Day on Twitter, for example, which more than a thousand museums have signed up to, enables members of the public to address questions to professionals they might not otherwise be able to communicate with. The statement on the Ask a Curator account sets the tone: “There are no silly questions, just those not asked!”2

While behind the scenes tours and open or visible storage facilities (such as the Visible Storage Study Center at the Brooklyn Museum, New York) generally focus on the vast – and often unseen – museum collections, they are by no means restricted to these. The Casino Luxembourg, for example, has shown that it is possible to organise tours behind the scenes even when a museum does not have a collection of its own. Following the restructuring of the Casino’s galleries and as part of the current Gypsum exhibition by Lara Almarcegui, the museum offers E Bléck hannert d’Kulissen, a set of different tours and workshops showing, for example, how an exhibition is installed and dismantled and how a work of art is created. Mudam has pursued a similar goal by organising behind the scenes projects in collaboration with schools. In Dans la peau d’une œuvre d’art, students took on the role of a work of art as it journeys through the museum. The experience allowed students to meet the various members of staff involved and find out about different museum professions.

Similar activities have been organised by other museums in Luxembourg, especially during the annual Expérience Musée, when the city’s museums encourage students to discover the many different jobs available in a museum and ask direct questions to staff. As part of this initiative, the Musée national d’histoire et d’art arranged visits to its archaeological restoration room in Bertrange, where students were able to learn more about the work surrounding the museum’s famous Roman mosaic and other archaeological objects. Clearly, all these activities that focus on young people are in the interest of museums and students alike. Students can discover a world that may have hitherto been unknown to them, and museums can enthuse young people about museum professions and secure future generations of employees.

Behind the scenes tours – as trivial as the phrase may sound – certainly have the potential to be enjoyable and valuable, for visitors and museums. In a rapidly transforming world, which will not spare museums, audiences are increasingly looking for new and alternative experiences. Of course, museums do not have to blindly follow every trend, but they do need to evolve with the times and with society. From an economic and marketing perspective, behind the scenes tours may not always provide an additional source of income, but they can give museums a way to position themselves to compete with other museums, cultural institutions and leisure activities in general.

More importantly, however, opening doors that were previously closed to the public is a physical and symbolic gesture. If it is done in a genuine fashion, it constitutes a step towards openness and transparency; it is a testament to a desire to offer new ways for audiences – and perhaps even new audiences – to engage with museums. Sometimes, contemplating the objects on display is simply not enough. People may wonder why one object rather than another has been chosen to be displayed in a museum. Others may ask themselves how museums use public money. Visitors might like to know which objects are included in a particular collection and how these are stored. They may also be interested in the people who work in a museum and what kind of research is being done there. Thus, providing access beyond the public space is not only a way to democratise but also to desacralise institutions that have been – and still are – intimidating to some people. It is one means, among others, to start a dialogue that may help audiences to make a connection with museums. If people feel comfortable, acknowledged and accepted in a place, they are more likely to return. And while this is true for young generations, it is no less vital for other audiences. We have seen that many museums in Luxembourg focus on young people when offering behind the scenes tours. Although this is unquestionably an important and necessary undertaking, museums should not limit their efforts to the adolescent population. Adults, too, are young at heart, curious and interested.

1 Meyer, M. (2011) „Researchers on display: moving the laboratory into the museum“, Museum Management and Curatorship, 26(3), p.268.
Laurence Brasseur
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