What makes a successful touring exhibition?

arnold van de water meet vincent van gogh
General manager at Van Gogh Museum for Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience, Arnold van de Water, provides insight into opportunities for, and threats facing, the touring exhibition industry.

Traveling exhibits come in all shapes and sizes. We have been operating in this field with our Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for years and sometimes our customers – the promoters, venues or visitors – no longer see the forest for the trees. In the September edition of IQ Magazine, General Manager Arnold van de Water explains his vision on the touring exhibition industry.

These past few years, the family entertainment industry has seen a significant rise in the popularity of touring exhibitions. These touring edutainment concepts are far removed from traditional museum exhibitions, where visitors are encouraged to merely look at original artworks and contemplate the accompanying information.

Whether it’s the intriguing life of an artist or the showcase of a popular movie: the public increasingly expects to experience the content by means of innovative technologies, rather than to just look and learn. As the line between entertainment and traditional museum exhibitions seems to be fading and more and more, contemporary touring exhibitions are continually developed, and the question arises: what makes a touring exhibition successful?

“The Meet Vincent exhibition is bridging the traditional gap between entertainment and high-art, making art accessible for a broader audience”

A new way of presenting iconic brands

Especially when it comes to museums, some would say that the only successful touring exhibitions are the ones that present “original artefacts”. I dare to question this.

Take the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for example. The museum is recognized as the world’s leading authority on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, and engages millions of visitors each year. Although the interest in Van Gogh’s original paintings remains undiminished, the museum has recognized a growing public demand to experience arts and culture in a contemporary way. By combining the expertise of the museum with techniques commonly employed in the entertainment industry, the museum has transformed the story of Vincent van Gogh into the touring Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience.

Although the museum owns the largest collection of original artworks by Vincent van Gogh, they chose not to present them in the tour. Instead, they created a multisensory, interactive exhibition inspired by Van Gogh’s artwork and letters, bridging the traditional gap between entertainment and high-art, and making art accessible for a broader audience. Not only for the traditional museum visitor, but also for families and so-called “digital nomads”.

It’s not a secret that successful brands sell, and that counts for touring exhibitions as well. The strong branding of the internationally acclaimed Van Gogh Museum assures visitors that they will receive the authentic story from a well-respected source.

Another example of a touring exhibition created around a successful brand is Nathan Sawaya’s Art of the Brick. Sawaya presents the iconic LEGO bricks in a way that is both new and entertaining, whilst maintaining the authenticity of the LEGO brand itself. Both these exhibitions show that by reinterpreting a well-recognized brand in an authentic and innovative way, you can open up the market for new audiences.


Production values

In my experience on the production side of touring exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of variation in quality when it comes to exhibition sets. Too often a production kit contains only a few video projectors, ragged text panels and a worn out light and walling system. As a result, presenters need to invest heavily to get the production to the right quality level. Bigger is not always better, but it’s all about applying enough resources in a smart, creative way. The end result should be a turnkey set that adds substantial value to both the presenter’s operation and the perceived visitor experience.


The industry threat: copycats

Unfortunately too often, when high-quality exhibitions become successful, copycats emerge. Some promoters choose a low-quality version mainly for financial reasons. I see this as a big threat for this fast-growing market segment. Visitors are often buying an expensive ticket for an exhibition that takes just 30 minutes to walk through, or that doesn’t contain the story or brand that is expected. As a result, they are disappointed and may not visit a similar exhibition again. There are, for example, various Da Vinci, dino, and space exhibitions, but only a few are authentic, have high production values, and are supported by a well-known brand. These low-cost exhibitions will burn up the market for us all.


All in

In my opinion, the touring exhibitions market can only be successful if promoters consistently opt for brand and production value above price, and I think this proves to be the biggest challenge. If you aim to be successful and want to attract a large number of visitors on a consistent basis, there’s no cutting corners. The discussion is not about whether original artefacts need to be presented or not, it’s about telling the authentic story in an appropriate way by using the original brand; having a high-quality production value; and engaging visitors with the use of innovative technologies.

Quality comes with a price and promoters must go ‘all in’ to ensure that the touring-exhibition market grows to be stable and successful.


This article was published in the IQ Magazine issue 79, September 2018

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