Meet van Gogh

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is one of the most popular museums in the country. Despite a changing heritage market, the number of visitors to the Van Gogh Museum have only increased. In 2015 the museum welcomed 1.9 million visitors. All day every day, people are waiting in line to visit the museum and see the paintings of van Gogh. In a clever way, the museum defined its position in the current heritage market and anticipates on the changing role of the museum in society. Something that becomes more and more inevitable for museums who wish to keep their head above water in the contemporary ‘experience economy’, as was mentioned by both Bernadette Schrandt, researcher experience design for museums, and Annemarie de Wildt, curator of the Amsterdam Museum, in a guest lecture given to students of the master Heritage and Memory Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Interesting, museums having to find a new place in our current society. Even as an established institution, deeply embedded in our (Western) culture, is doesn’t seem able to escape from the rapid changes of modern times. With major cutbacks in the cultural sector, museums have to look for a way to lurk in museums on their own. Including youngsters, the digital generation, and they are a though audience to please. Internet, mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, faster, faster, more, more. What can museums offer to keep them interested? To keep them coming? An experience is what they’re after! They want to be awed, shocked moved!

The museum experience

And the experience economy affecting museums is a thing. It’s not only that I witness it in my favorite museums, but also the academic world is diving into this issue. For example Richard Prentice. In his article ‘Experiental Cultural Tourism: Museums & Markteting of the New Romanticism of Evoked Authenticity’ he describes the changing heritage market and the transformation of the heritage industry as a phenomenon of the last twenty-five years that manifested itself as ‘an international rush into museums’. Something also pointed at by Gregory Ashworth in the article ‘Heritage and the Consumption of Places’. He also notes this increase in the demand of heritage, especially among tourists. More and more people travel and ‘want the commodified past in more different ways.’ Aha. So more demand, but different. What does this mean for museums?

According to both heritage specialist this has two consequences First, museums experience more competition. A bigger demand for heritages logically results in a larger number of potential suppliers. This new market is very competitive, since a larger variety cultural institutions can match the experience museums have to offer. A second consequence is that culture has been popularized. Museums and heritage sites attracts a wider range of public and is no longer only for the elite:  “Cultural tourism is now popular tourism”, says Prentice. According to Prentice this change in supply and demand asks for a change of the role of the museum in society. Museums should ‘embrace both object-centred appreciation and consumption’ and integrate tourism in their organizations by focusing on the new experiences museums can offer. Because, as Prentice describes it, the new cultural tourism is an ‘experiental’ cultural tourism. And there we have our experience economy.

And in real life?

These changes in the heritage industry ask for a new marketing concept within museums and apparently the Van Gogh Museum is doing something right, with those millions of visitors coming in. So what does this changing approach look like in real life? This brief analysis of one of the most successful museums in the world might help.

First, the Van Gogh Museum wants a visit to be a ‘real’ experience. They promote this with a ‘Meet van Gogh’- campaign, with slogans as ‘Step into the world of Van Gogh’. The museum offers a unique look into the life of Van Gogh.  By visiting the museum they give the visitor the experience that they get to know the painter. They focus on the authentic paintings, their big advantage, combined with, among other things, quotes of the artist and his friends on the exhibition walls, exhibiting his personal belongings, as his palette, and by focusing the exhibition on the personal stories he wrote in his letters. Vincent van Gogh becomes a real person while visiting the museum: a special experience for the visitor.

Secondly, the Van Gogh Museum responds very well to the wider range of public that is visiting the museum. They seem to understand that this more varied public does not only consists of experienced museum visitors and that the motivations for visiting the museum might vary. The museum offers, for example, a very extensive ‘multimedia guide’ which gives a clear tour through the museum, but also features famous Dutch actors telling the visitor about their favorite painting. This makes the museum not only attractive to art lovers, but also triggers the imagination and association of less experienced and less ‘serious’ visitors. Besides, under the name ‘Friday with Vincent’, the museum also tries to attract younger visitors by hosting special evenings with DJ’s, performances and other events on Friday evenings. Talking about experiences…

Also, the gift shop of the museum holds a prominent place in the recently, publicly opened new entrance hall of the museum. The shop not only contains postcards and canvasses with replications of the paintings, but also sells luxury products as jewelry, vases and Dutch design; all with a Van Gogh style print, of course. This way the museum also responds to the visitor who wants to ‘see it all’ and wishes to take home a unique, beautiful souvenir of that experience.

The last example of the way the Van Gogh Museum positioned itself in the changing cultural market is the way the museum integrated the new form of heritage tourism experience in the museum. Heritage products are consumed very rapidly and visitors only want to spend a couple of hours in the museum in order to see everything else the city has to offer. One of the things the Van Gogh Museum does to meet this wish, is offering a ‘Highlight Tour’ in which the visitor is guided to the most important paintings of the collection in just one hour.

Ka-ching!

So, the Van Gogh Museum is a star in promoting itself internationally (especially in Asia), by selling popular gadgets in the gift shop, by organizing cool parties and by offering a real experience. The Van Gogh Museum made itself fashionable and the works of van Gogh extremely popular. It has taken into account the changes in demand and supply on the heritage market and reacted to that by offering the visitor something they simply cannot miss when visiting Amsterdam. The museum made itself into a popular product and doesn’t only makes loads of money, but also attracts a wide range of public and stands out in the variety of heritage Amsterdam now has to offer. Now that’s something that you want to see on your Instagram-feed.

Prentice, R., ‘Experiental Cultural Tourism: Museums & Marketing of the New Romanticism of Evoked Authenticity’, Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.19, no.1 (2001), pp.5-26.

Ashworth, G., ‘Heritage and the Consumption of Places’. In: Laarse, R., v.d. (ed.), Bezeten van Vroeger: Erfgoed, Identiteit en Musealisering, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis 2005, pp.193-206.

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