Tuesday, 3 March 2015




As some of you know, I was lucky enough to travel to Amsterdam over Reading Week to visit a dear friend of mine. She still had to work while I was there, and that left me plenty of time on my own to do all the museum things. I had my list and set out to conquer it.

The first museum I went to see was the Anne Frank House. A friend had suggested I book tickets online, so I booked them on a whim a couple of hours before. And THANK THE SWEET SWEET LORD I did.

Only a small section of the line up....
Source: http://www.thewanderblogger.com/2013/09/experiencing-the-anne-frank-house-amsterdam.html
When I hopped off the bus, and went looking for the House, I came across this alarmingly long line of people. That couldn’t be it, right? Wrong. This line of (no exaggeration) 100 people definitely lead straight to the Anne Frank House. I couldn’t believe it - I’ve never seen so many people wait in line for a museum. Apparently wait times can exceed 2 hours. I not-so-quietly patted myself on the back for buying ahead of time and walked past all those poor suckers. 

Anne Frank House from across the canal
Source: Meaghan Dalby
With this experience in mind, I made sure to pre-buy a ticket for the Rijksmuseum. This time, I thought I was an old pro. I knew to expect the lines, even on a Tuesday morning in February, but I had my special pre-bought ticket, nothing could stop me. Wrong again. The Rijksmuseum is the Number 1 visited museum in Holland, and a new temporary exhibit Late Rembrandt had just opened three days previous. Needless to say, even though I had already bought my ticket, I still waited over an hour to get in to see Late Rembrandt and the rest of the galleries. 

Waiting to get into the Rijksmuseum
Source: Meaghan Dalby

Line up to get into Late Rembrandt 
Source: Meaghan Dalby

This experience made me think about what museums were like at home vs. what they’re like in Europe. Why do so many more people flock to these institutions, while our own continue to struggle with attendance?

I don’t know for sure, but I would hazard to guess that the majority of visitors to the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House are tourists. According to Wikipedia, there were 563 million international tourists to Europe in 2013, compared with 169 million to the Americas. There is an expectation of history in Europe; I think it is perceived as being “older” than North America, and therefore somehow more culturally significant.

Accurate depiction of myself abroad
Source: http://textandcity.blogspot.ca/2013/05/tourism-as-sin-12-spies-and-idea-of.html

I have never seen lineups at the ROM or the AGO, or even at the Canadian War Museum or the National Gallery, the way I saw them in Holland. While it certainly is positive that people are visiting museums, I wonder how we as Emerging Museum Professionals can create the kind of quintessential destination in our Canadian institutions, as I witnessed abroad. Why is there this stigma that North American museums and culture are not as interesting or worthy of our time and money?

That all being said, I’m going to play my own devil’s advocate here and questions if out-of-this-world attendance is ideal. My visit to the Rijksmuseum, while informative and interesting, wasn’t my best museum experience BECAUSE there were so many people. Perhaps we can strive for a happy medium? What does that look like?


  1. You raise some really good questions here, Meaghan. It is so important to consider the overall tourist economy when we think of visitor demographics at individual institutions. I also think it is important to think about why tourists come to Toronto in the first place -- what kind of city "experience" are they looking for and expecting? Obviously, everyone's reasons for travel are different and this question would never have a single answer, but it is useful for thinking about how to align a museum's profile and marketing with the attraction of Toronto as a tourist destination.

    As an aside, I love that you have selected Duane Hanson's incredibly realistic sculptures as representations of typical tourists. It kind of distracted me and made want to see more of Hanson's work! Not to co-opt your post, but for others yearning to explore this artist further, here's a great link: http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/duane_hanson.htm

  2. I had a similar experience in New York over Reading Week. Thank God I purchased tickets to the AMNH before hand as before the museum even opened, the line up to get in was down the street.

  3. Meaghan, I really like the connections you make between visitorship numbers and global tourism - I think that museums that are primarily visited by global tourists (or just tourists) build their exhibitions and programs very differently than museums which need to speak to their local groups of visitors (I would place ROM and AGO in this category). I think it would be quite an interesting exercise to compare curatorial and interpretive practices in large (and small) global museums to those in large museums in cities like Ottawa and Toronto.