Euro-update 7: How to manage your Important Historical Site

Let's suppose you're the proprietor of a European tourist attraction. We're not talking about a Louvre or Uffizi here, or even a Leaning Tower of Pisa. No, you're in charge of a hidden gem: the scenic Church of the Saint No One Has Ever Heard Of, or the lovely little Museum of the Famous Artist Which Possesses None of His Famous Works.

Your job is to show why this Saint really is someone important, or why the lesser-known works of the Famous Artist should get broader recognition. You also need to preserve your attraction for future generations, and (most importantly) give yourself a nice salary. How would you go about doing this?

Let me first start by presenting the typical approach in most such places.

  1. Charge three separate admissions fees. Make people pay once to get inside. Make them pay again for a map or guide. If they want to take photos, they'll have to pay once again. Alternately you can restrict photography altogether. Then they'll have to pay for a post card depicting the item of interest in the gift shop (that is, in the unlikely event that a post card depicting that item is available).
  2. Don't label anything. That way if people want to know about the items on display in your collection, they'll have to hire a tour guide. Since tour guides bring in larger groups of people, that's more revenue for you!
  3. Alternately, you could make descriptions available in an audioguide (usually for a fee equal to or greater than the admissions charge). That way patrons will spend more time admiring each item in your collection as they listen to the lengthy description of what they're seeing. Well, they would if you'd labeled the items in your collection, which you haven't (see #2 above).
  4. Light your collection poorly. It adds to the "mystery" and will keep people coming back -- perhaps with a tour guide and a larger group!
  5. Have your docents follow patrons around to each room of your exhibit. Obviously you don't have the budget for a separate docent in each room, and nothing makes tourists feel more comfortable than a hovering guard, especially one who doesn't speak their language and/or knows nothing about the exhibits.
  6. Rope off the most interesting rooms in your facility. Tourists prefer to view items by leaning precariously into cordoned off areas.
  7. Allow stray animals to wander around your facility, especially in cordoned off areas. It adds to the "charm." The larger the animal, the more charming. It makes tourists feel special to know that feral dogs are allowed in places they aren't.
  8. Synchronize your closings with every other attraction in town. If everything is closed on the same day, then no one "steals" your business. Monday seems to be the universal closing day across Europe. Tourists will eventually learn not to visit Europe on Mondays.
  9. Demand silence and respect from all of your patrons -- except tour guides, who are allowed to be as loud and obnoxious as they please.

I admit, this seems like a pretty airtight strategy. Your monument is preserved, and you've got a cushy job for life! But let me humbly suggest a different approach, based on your respect for the visitor, instead of the visitor's respect for you.

  1. Just one admissions fee. Make it a bit higher if you must, but give visitors something in return. Offer a decent, free map, especially if your attraction has a non-obvious organizational system. Don't restrict photography.

    Now, I can understand the idea behind restricting photography: you don't want others controlling how your monument is presented to the world, and you see a revenue opportunity. But if you're so concerned about your public image, how about doing like the Louvre does and making high-quality images of your entire collection available online, so potential visitors see what you've got to offer. Are you worried that people won't want to visit once people see pictures of your site online? Then you might want to consider another line of work. If people aren't inspired by pictures to come see the real thing, then the real thing probably isn't worth seeing.

    But let me make a case for allowing visitors to take photos. Taking pictures is a part of how visitors enjoy the experience. It's the way they take note of what they've seen, how they file it in their personal store of memories. It will be how they share those memories with others when they return home. If you restrict photography, you're making the visit less pleasant. Why would you want to do that? What's more, you're making it less likely that they'll share their memories with others -- others who might be your future, paying customers.

    I've heard that flash photography damages the exhibits, but I have a hard time believing it. A very bright, sustained light will fade fabrics or pastels over a long period, but I seriously doubt an instantaneous camera flash will have any measurable effect. And I've seen restrictions on flash photography in rooms where bright sunlight is allowed to fall directly on the paintings. Surely in this case the museum curators are doing much more damage to the works than any camera flashbulb could. Think of it this way: if a camera flashes for 1/1000 of a second, and if it's as bright as the sun (doubtful), then an artwork would need to be exposed to 36 million flashes every day to match the effect of sunlight. Remember, you're a second- or third-tier attraction. You're not going to get 36 million visitors in your lifetime. 36 million people probably won't see your exhibit in its entire history.

    Maybe you think flashes are annoying to other visitors, but I'd submit that it's a trivial nuisance compared to other distractions, such as docents yelling "no photo!"

  2. I'm stunned at how many museums and churches offer absolutely no means for their visitors to understand what they're seeing. Not only are there no labels, there's no brochure, no map, no nothing. At one Palazzo we visited in Rome, only an audioguide was offered. Audioguides are a fine option, but they make it difficult for visitors to decide what's worth learning more about. A printed label is easier to scan, and gives visitors the option of deciding whether to read more. Labeling your collection well is a separate issue, and it's probably something I'll address in its own post.
  3. At the Roman Colosseum, we bought audioguides, which we don't normally do, but in this case it allowed us to skip a 45-minute line. But we were given an inaccurate map indicating when we were supposed to play the various audio options. Then the narrative would begin: "to your left, you'll see the grand blah-de-blah, erected by the emperor doo-gee-wah in 45 BC. Now, looking to your right, you'll see the whozeemagootch, yadda yadda, yadda." It makes no sense if you're not facing the right direction, and the map gave no clues.

    Would it have killed them to put up a small sign inside the monument itself indicating what audioguide program to initiate when, and which way to look? And why not make the information in audioguides available in printed form? You had to write a script for the guide in the first place, didn't you?

  4. It's exceptionally rare to see a well-lit painting in a cathedral. Museums are usually better, but even then, you'll often see a painting like "Jesus weeps by candelight in a dark canyon during new moon on a stormy night." For all you can tell, it's canvas painted shiny black, perfectly reflecting the glare of the sunlight from the windows above. Surely there's a way to light a painting that doesn't reflect its light source directly into your patrons' eyes. You might want to look into that.
  5. It seems that the primary job qualification of most European docents is to be able to shout "no photo" in every conceivable language. Let me rephrase that. It seems that the primary job qualification for a European docent is the ability to shout "no photo," regardless of the primary language of the offending party, which is usually Japanese. What if the docents actually made the museum visit more enjoyable for visitors, by offering useful information, or at least pointing out where it can be found if they don't speak the relevant language? Don't you think people who have a good museum visit might tell their friends?
  6. I can understand the need to preserve your monument, but why is it that so often the very attractions visitors are most interested in are cordoned off, with no means of access? In Prague we visited a lovely monastery, the Strahov. According to our guidebook, Theological Hall and Philosophical Hall were the two must-see rooms in the complex, but our admission ticket only entitled us to enter the dreary passage connecting the two grand halls. All we were allowed to do was peer through the doorways of what to our minds were the primary attractions of this site. If you're really strapped for funds, why not scrap your paltry $2.50 photo permit and charge 10 bucks for a guided tour through this most fragile, most beautiful area of your site?
  7. I'm not kidding about the stray animals. From cats in the Roman Colosseum to mangy dogs in Pompeii, to pigeons virtually everywhere, it's fascinating that Europeans, who created Western culture, haven't managed to figure out a decent way to control pests. While a pest-free monument won't guarantee that you'll attract a crowd, it certainly can't hurt.
  8. I realize that you might want a day off every now and then, but why do all museums have to close the same day in a city? Couldn't you alternate who gets what day off?
  9. I hate tour groups, so I may have a bias, but it certainly seems to me that many sacred spaces that ask visitors to be silent and respectful are giving an unfair perk by allowing tour guides to pontificate loudly: "HERE IS THE TOMB OF SAINT SO-AND-SO, THE HOLIEST AND MOST REVERED SPACE IN THIS CATHEDRAL! THOSE WHO ADMIRE AND RESPECT THIS SAINT BELIEVE THAT EVEN UTTERING A WORD IN FRONT OF THIS ALTAR WITHOUT FIRST CONFESSING THEIR SINS AND SAYING FIVE ROSARIES WILL BE CONDEMNED TO ETERNAL DAMNATION!"

    Some tour companies have started to use a nifty new technology where all the tourists wear headsets so the guide can speak quietly into a microphone. You could do worse than to require such technology at your site. If the tour group doesn't have the headsets, you could have a nice side business renting the equipment.

To sum up, it all really comes down to your job description. Remember, you need to show why your attraction is important, you need to preserve it for future generations, and you need to make enough money to get paid.

While none of these goals is dispensible, I'd submit that the best way to achieve them is to consider the experience of your visitors first. More visitors, and more satisfied visitors, means more recognition for your monument. If visitors had a good experience, they will tell their friends, blog about it, write favorable reviews in online forums, post photos to Flickr, and post videos to YouTube. Then, more visitors will come. You'll be able to afford better means to preserve your exhibits, and maybe even give yourself a raise. But it starts with respect for the visitors. If you respect them, they'll respect you.

A couple places to emulate:

1. St. Agnes Convent in Prague. St. Agnes focuses on medieval art, which can be a horrible bore. How many "Madonna and Child" paintings/sculptures/altarpieces can you bear? But here the works were attractively displayed, well lit, and there were no photography restrictions. Even flashes were allowed! My favorite exhibit was a collection of works from an altarpiece depicting a typical medieval subject: the life of Christ. The paintings were perfectly lit and displayed with plenty of room for visitors to see comfortably. Here's the crucifixion:


I've seen dozens of crucifixions on this trip, but this is the first one I'd noticed where Jesus was literally bleeding onto Mary -- gruesome, but effective. It's likely that this same device was used in some of the other paintings I saw, but I didn't notice it until this work -- probably because its elegant display encouraged me to stop and look. My photo of the work isn't perfect, even after editing in photoshop to remove some of the flash artifacts, but it's good enough to get my point across. Maybe a reader will decide to visit based on my recommendation, and the museum will benefit.

What's more, St. Agnes has excellent labels on all its works, in both English and Czech. There's enough information to understand what you're seeing, and no more. The museum took just 45 minutes to visit, but we'll remember it long after many others, even ones possessing more "notable" works.

2. The Opera museum in Pisa. This museum had even less to work with than St. Agnes, but it made the most of it. It didn't hurt that it had a wonderful, shaded cloister with tremendous views of the tower (and benches to enjoy it from):


The collection included a few dozen sculptures which had been removed from the Pisa Duomo, which otherwise would have been high on the façade and out of view. It was fascinating to see the level of detail in these works, which would never have been seen by the people a hundred feet below at the Duomo's doors.

It also featured this nifty scroll:


The pictures are for the benefit of the illiterate parishioners. The scroll was designed to be fed through a system that allowed the clergy to sing the relevant passage while the laity looked at the accompanying picture several slides down the line. For the whole thing to work properly the text was printed upside-down:


Once again, everything was clearly labeled in both Italian and English, which is the only way I'd have any idea how this contraption actually worked.

I don't think the Opera Museum or the St. Agnes Convent had a larger budget or wealthier benefactors than less-successful attractions we've seen on this trip; they just did a better job showing off the highlights of their collections.

But perhaps it's better that few attractions manage to achieve this level of excellence in meeting their visitors' needs. If all sites were this well-managed, then more tourists would make the trip, and prices of hotels, airfares, and other travel necessities would go up, making it harder for me to visit!

Note: when I first wrote this post, I didn't have access to the Internet, so I couldn't back up my hunch about flashbulbs. But here's a post that supports my argument. I'd also say a reasonable compromise would be to officially ban flashes but not actually enforce the ban. That way if a pro came in with high-intensity lights you could tell her to stop, but not have to yell at tourists every 30 seconds. You might end up with 10 or at most 100 flashes per day on a given work of art -- hardly a blip on the light-life of the work.


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All I can say is that when Americans are in their home territory they don't put up with the sort of inefficiency you've mentioned. I've known some places that have gone belly-up because they did the double or triple charge and didn't allow photography or didn't label things properly. One in particular was the so-called "Ponderosa Ranch" up by Lake Tahoe where the entrance fee was horrendous in the first place, and to see the inside of the actual ranch house you had to pay extra. They exist no more, and I was delighted to notice that the last time I drove by.

However, for some reason when Americans go to Europe they treat everything as a holy relic, as though European docents can do no wrong.

Frankly, if I consented to visit a place like that I would either insist on speaking to the management, or sit down ASAP and write to the management about my complaints. Most of them are probably totally unaware of how much they inconvenience the very people they need to keep the place going, or they just plain don't care and can't figure out the connection between their income and how well or poorly they treat people. Some of that may actually have to do with the whole "class structure" in Europe. If someone's family has been in charge of a castle for generations, they get a bit uppity, and don't see any reason why they ought to put themselves out for a mere tourist. And Americans let them get away with it because there's this "sacred aura" about anything European because it's OLD.

Hey, I know. I was born and raised in Europe, and I wouldn't put up with any of it.

By roseindigo (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

I also wanted to say that I've found the American "holy relic" attitude about Europe is especially so when it comes to France. Here in America if you want to sell any food or wine product, you can label it as "French" or give it a French name, and people will ooooh and aaaaah as though it's a gift from the gods, when actually it isn't so at all.

As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever had a GOOD French wine here in America. What Americans don't seem to realize is that the French keep all their really good wines for themselves and export the stuff that they don't drink. Oh yes, there was ONE exception, and that happened to be a bottle of French wine that cost about $300. It went down like velvet. But ordinary French wines? No way! If you want a decent wine, buy a good California wine. If you like white wine, German wines can't be beat very easily.

Remember, just because it's called a "fromage" instead of cheese doesn't make it any better.

By roseindigo (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Concerning stray animals at Italian archaeological sites, e.g. cats in the Roman Colosseum, there are local laws for protecting them and letting them thrive in those environments. The city of Rome, for example, has officially declared cats a "biocultural resource of the city".

Good and obvious guidelines. You might want to replace 'Europe' for 'Italy' though... 'We' are not a United States of Europe, and cultural differences between countries are large.

Anyway, have a fun rest of your trip!

By Jan-Maarten (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

This is how I see it. The Church of the Saint No One Has Ever Heard Of is just that - an obscure church. Its declining flock tries to look after the place, but it's a struggle. The place needs a lot of maintenance and they aren't getting a lot of help from the authorities. Luckily it happens to be in Rome and there's a steady supply of badly dressed American tourists who, for reasons that bemuse the congregation and their elderly priest, seem intent on visiting anything that's over 150 years old. Including their unheard of church.

They could, of course, just let the invaders wander round the place snapping photos of everything in sight and generally disturbing the peace. Or they could charge. They go for the latter, not unreasonably thinking they'll take what the market will bear. The idea that they should label everything in their place of worship doesn't even cross their minds. IT'S A CHURCH - not an exhibit in the Epcot centre.

I visited Rome with my family last autumn. It was, I think, my fifth trip and, as ever, I loved the place. I marvel at the Roman remains - imagine legions returning in triumph, senators hurrying across the forum, the palaces glittering on the Palatine, races in the Circus Maximus. At no time have I ever felt 'this should be better labelled' (although maybe that's because I always take a good guide book) and the cats are part of the character of the place. Again, the Fora Romana isn't a museum - it's a 2000 year old , astonishing, imagination inspiring, moving, wonderful and REAL place.

I feel truly sorry for someone who can visit the Coliseum and come away complaining about the labelling. You've missed so much.

Lastly, a tip: if you go make sure you visit the Via Appia Antica on a Sunday afternoon. It includes long preserved sections of the main Roman road from the south. It's 15 minutes from the city centre by bus, but suddenly you're in the countryside imagining those returning legions again, carts of olives and wine rumbling up from the south and the thoughts of Romans returning home.

On Sundays the sections of the road that are normally open to traffic are closed to vehicles. You can stroll past ruined castles and villas with the locals, sit in a bar and sip on a Peroni and generally escape the bustle of the centre. There's not a label to be seen. Perfect.

yeah, I think I'm with Joe on this one -- the people running tiny places aren't implementing a crappy business plan, they're just running their zones (usually small churches or historic homes) on either volunteer efforts or a couple of low-rent retirees who have some love of the place. your visit may be quite secondary to the reason that the place exists (and/or is a tourist destination). the presence of insistant tourists does not obligate all in their environs to retailor themselves for service -- some just want to get on with their lives.

Well, I must confess that Joe's and ACM's attitudes are probably the best. Sounds to me like they are TRAVELERS instead of TOURISTS. I especially like this thought: "The idea that they should label everything in their place of worship doesn't even cross their minds. IT'S A CHURCH - not an exhibit in the Epcot centre." ---- and many times with the little out-of-the-way places that's probably the reality of it. Just because tourists invade the place doesn't mean the locals have to change their ways.

However, some of the points made above by Dave Munger do have merit; like flash photography not being allowed while the whole exhibit sits in bright sunlight, or the required silence while the tour guide can drone on and on.

And I believe that's the difference between TRAVELERS and TOURISTS. Tourists come and go, want a quick look at everything and have everything conveniently labeled so they can say they've been there. Travelers immerse themselves in the culture and don't need labels. I tend to be a tourist and so see things more from that perspective, but I admire travelers.

By Roseindigo (not verified) on 18 Jul 2007 #permalink

Some great responses from everyone!

That said, I'd dispute Jan's point that I'm only talking about Italy. These points apply pretty much across the board over our entire trip including five different countries. I may have included somewhat more Italian examples, but they can apply everywhere.

And I certainly don't mean to be making judgments about cultural differences. I've seen good and bad museums and other tourist sites in each place I've visited, as I have in America. I'm just commenting about the places I happen to have visited on this trip.

Regarding Joe's point that these sites have other functions besides tourism, I agree. However, I believe that once you begin to charge an admission fee for tourists, then you are a "tourist site," and I offer my advice for you as a way of showing what makes a site appealing to tourists. You certainly have the right to reserve your site for other uses, including closing off portions of your site, or having odd hours. Just realize that doing this will necessarily make your site less appealing for tourists.

Regarding the numerous complaints about "labels," I agree that labels can be overly obtrusive. However, small, discreet labels, or even a separate, printed guide, will not detract from the non-tourist function of a site nearly as much the tourists themselves do. If you don't like having tourists in your site, then don't set yourself up as a tourist attraction.

Regarding Joe's complaint that I shouldn't complain about the labeling on the tourist sites, claiming that I've "missed so much," I'd encourage you to look at my 20 other posts (so far) about the trip on Word Munger, as well as the 6 other euro-updates here. I've very much enjoyed my visit to Europe, but I still think it's worthwhile to also think about how to make Europe even better.

"Better labeling" may be a pipedream for a long time to come. Take Louvre for instance. It has overwhelmingly many archaeological artifacts, but very few labels about anything. Most of the galleries does not even have a map. If you don't know where Etruscans lived, you are out of luck. The artifacts in each gallery did not seem to be organized in a chronological or geographical order, either. This all contributed to my impression of "Here are the stuff we have pillaged over the years, enjoy..." statement. Metropolitan in NY was much better to learn more about the period or civilization, whose artifacts were being displayed.

The few labels in Louvre around the artifacts were all in French, which looked too short to give much info about the painting, the artist or the artifact beyond where it was founded and when it was probably made, but not much about why it is significant. (Some galleries did have an English introduction on a wall, but many did not.) French-only labels did not help me much, but of course, I don't remember Met having non-English displays, either. I guess that is par for the course. :)

By Tatil Sever (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink