Rant 74: Blockbuster blues

Rant 74: Blockbuster blues Peter Gates, Ice cream, 2008

The sight of long winding ‘blockbuster’ exhibition queues has become commonplace in our major cities, but what effect does the sheer mass of visitors to an exhibition have on the experience of art? Cara Sutherland looks back on being too small to see and how growing hasn’t helped.


When I was a child, my grandfather took me to the National Gallery. It was huge, slightly cold, smelt funny and I was too small to really see anything. So my grandfather lifted me up to look at the paintings. 

I have never forgotten the true childish anguish I felt at not being able completely to see the works of art. The day ended with a grumpy granddaughter tucking into an ice-cream. Problem solved. If only an ice-cream could soothe my frustration now.

I spend a great deal of my time in galleries and museums. It’s my profession, study and my love, but I struggle to feel any personal appreciation towards the over-crowded ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions so readily adopted by our galleries and museums. The National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition has seen queues around the building, with shivering blue-faced visitors standing in the frosty London air waiting to get a ticket. And when inside the average congregation round a painting exceeds twenty.

Having decided against losing my fingers to frostbite, I recently visited the British Museum to see Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Sadly, as soon as I purchased my ticket I became part of a mass, a crowd like the ones you get at a concert - all straining to get a glimpse of the art we paid to see.

And here is my problem: at a gig the crowd is the atmosphere, it enhances your sense of something experienced and appreciated in a collective context. That’s the point.

I’m not sure that I’m happy only being able to experience an exhibition between the heads of my fellow onlookers. Maybe I’m saying that the contemplation, the ability to look at something of interest for as long as I want is crucial to my enjoyment of an exhibition. Now that I’m tall enough to see the art, why should I be six rows back?


Contributed by Cara Sutherland
Cara is a curator and artist currently based in South Yorkshire. 


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