Look at Life: Blockbuster Exhibitions

23rd November 2018

FOMO versus JOMO
(The 'Fear' versus the 'Joy' of Missing Out)

By Deborah Mulhearn

Call me a philistine, but these days I’m happy to look at art in books, or enjoy the insights of tv’s many art critics. I used to love going to exhibitions, but nowadays it has to be something really special to entice me to the latest blockbuster (or ‘purse-buster’) – because I often find I simply don’t enjoy it.

You stand in queues winding round the outside of the gallery, queues for bag searches, queues for the cloakroom, and queues for your timed slot. And when you eventually do get inside, there are already scores of art lovers taking up every inch of space in front of every exhibit or painting. What do you do? You gaze dutifully for your allotted moment, and at the end it’s impossible to say whether you feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed.

Sure, you can join a gallery’s membership scheme and go to the private view, but in my experience, these are social events where no one gives the art more than a cursory glance.

I can’t help wondering whether audiences (myself included) genuinely want to see the art or are just going along because of the hype. It’s even got an acronym – FOMO (fear of missing out). Being there becomes more important than seeing and learning; with all the publicity and promotion, people are anxious that they’re losing out on a significant culture event if they don’t go. It becomes an experience to be consumed, like a spectacle.

At a Van Gogh exhibition (one that I was, incidentally, very happy to queue for), a young woman stood rapt before a painting… wearing dark glasses. It’s possible that she may have had an eye problem, but they were designer sunglasses. Perhaps she just forgot to take them off. Either way, how could she see the explosive colour, the furious brushstrokes and the layers of paint so thick they are apparently still drying?

Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum in 1972 is regarded as the first blockbuster exhibition. I didn’t go, but I remember the buzz around it at the time and I still have the tattered poster of Tutankhamun’s death mask that my auntie brought back from a trip to London, and which inspired a school art project. Treasures of Tutankhamun remains the most popular exhibition in the museum’s history, and it also boosted Egypt’s tourist industry, with profits from the exhibition supporting an engineering project to save iconic temples from the floodwaters of the River Nile.

But I wonder if the British Museum curators realised what they were unleashing, because blockbuster exhibitions have now become a major income stream for cash-strapped museums and galleries. It’s hard to argue against them when they keep places afloat and drive the visitor economy in their locale. But rather than creating a sense of anticipation and awe, the demand for a runaway success and the need to satisfy the sponsors is sucking the pleasure out of them.

I went to see China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at World Museum Liverpool – I’m unlikely to ever go to China to see them in situ, so it was an unmissable opportunity to see these fascinating two thousand year old sculptures. It was packed – a sold-out show generating £78m for the city’s economy.

This is great news, but it was so busy in there, and darkly lit, that it was hard to get a sense of them as wonders of the ancient world. I spent barely a minute before the seven warriors, who, without the massed ranks of their compatriots, looked remarkably benign. It’s the sheer number of them that’s impressive, after all, stretching away into the infinity of the red earth.

And then there was the bizarre spectacle of people taking pictures. You had to crane your neck to see past all the phones held aloft. When I got home, I looked at the warriors again, on the website, where I could see the incredible refinement of the carving, the lines and frowns and sanguine expressions on their ancient, smooth faces. Website images are now so realistic, with superb high definition and zoom and rotate features that allow you to get closer to the exhibit than you ever would in a gallery. And there are other ways to see art; such as the high quality art films of exhibitions from around the world that are becoming a standard part of cinema programmes. It’s hardly necessary to brave the crowds in the actual gallery.

It’s worth remembering, however, that there are hundreds of small galleries and rooms beyond the main rooms in the big ones, away from the blockbusters, quietly presenting their perhaps less spectacular and certainly less hyped treasures. Why not venture out to one of these many thoughtful, absorbing, carefully crafted lower key exhibitions where you can take your time, look properly and come away inspired, provoked and refreshed? And only put your sunglasses on when you get back outside…

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