Museums Straining at the Seams ; as Attendance Soars in Europe, Institutions Worry about Preservation

By Donadio, Rachel | International New York Times, July 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

Museums Straining at the Seams ; as Attendance Soars in Europe, Institutions Worry about Preservation


Donadio, Rachel, International New York Times


Soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna- like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

One cloudy afternoon this month, the line to enter the Louvre stretched around the entrance pyramid, across one long courtyard and into the next. Inside the museum, a crowd more than a dozen deep faced the "Mona Lisa," most taking cellphone pictures and selfies. Near the "Winged Victory of Samothrace," Jean-Michel Borda, visiting from Madrid, paused amid the crush. "It's like the Metro early in the morning," he said.

It is the height of summer, and millions of visitors are flocking to the Louvre -- the busiest art museum in the world, with 9.3 million visitors last year -- and to other great museums across Europe. Every year the numbers grow as new middle classes emerge, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe. Last summer the British Museum had record attendance, and for 2013 as a whole it had 6.7 million visitors, making it the second-most visited art museum in the world. Attendance at the Uffizi in Florence for the first half of the year is up almost 5 percent over last year.

Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

In recent years, museums have started doing more to manage the crowds. Most offer timed tickets. Others are extending their hours. To protect the art, some are putting in new air-conditioning systems. Still, some say they are not doing enough.

Last year, the Vatican Museums had a record 5.5 million visitors. This year, thanks to the popularity of Pope Francis, officials expect that to rise to 6 million. The Vatican is installing a new climate-control system in the Sistine Chapel to help spare Michelangelo's frescoes the humidity generated by the 2,000 people who fill the space at any given time, recently as many as 22,000 a day. The Vatican hopes to have it finished by October.

In a telephone interview, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, said his institution was in a bind: To safeguard the frescoes, attendance should not be allowed to increase, he said, but "the Sistine Chapel has a symbolic, religious value for Catholics and we can't set a cap."

Museums generally don't like keeping a lid on attendance. At the Hermitage, which had 3.1 million visitors last year, the only cap on the number of visitors is "the physical limitations of the space itself, or the number of hangers in the coat room during the winter," said Nina V. Silanteva, the head of the museum's visitor services department.

Ms. Silanteva said the goal was to make the museum accessible to as many people as possible, but she conceded that the crowds pose problems. "Such a colossal number of simultaneous viewers isn't good for the art, and it can be uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who come to see the art," she said. "Thankfully nothing bad has happened, and God has saved us from any mishaps."

Sometimes, mishaps do occur. Because of crowds, the Townley Venus in the British Museum, a first- to second-century Roman statue with an outstretched arm, has had its fingers knocked off a few times in recent years. …

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