Sydney- Visitor experience extremes.
Among visitor attractions in central Sydney I found the extremes in terms of visitor numbers.
At one end of the spectrum was the Aquarium in Darling Harbour on a Sunday. Visitors numbered in the 1000’s. Mostly families, of every creed and colour. Herded through, like sheep in a drafting race. It was impossible to go back against the throng.
Not a single person seemed to be reading a sign, pressing a button, or watching a video. They were all fully engrossed in the sensory pleasure of watching, photographing, filming, and selfy-ing with live creatures in beautiful other worldly environments.
Everyone was delighted by the graceful gentle gormless-faced dugongs. They seemed almost human, and it wasn’t hard to imagine an 18th century sailor, long at sea, getting a bit excited about them too. Another highlight was the “Jellyfish Garden”. Jellyfish floated dreamily in colour-lit cylindrical tanks which repeated endlessly in mirrored walls. A middle-aged Aussie bloke remarked guilelessly: “They look like floating penises”. When I laughed it occurred to him to be embarrassed: “Just saying,” he said.*
At the other end of the spectrum, was the New South Wales State Library, on a Wednesday morning. I arrived a little early at an imposing classical edifice set at the edge of sweeping parkland. Huge wooden doors were swung open by a uniformed security guard at the sedate hour of 10am. I walked alone through a vast marbled interior, past rows of silent bent heads in the library, to an equally silent gallery of monochrome photos and text. I was astounded to find Captain Bligh’s logbook sitting squarely in a case. The was nothing visual or auditory to celebrate the greatest navigational feat of the seas, nor the scandalous and violent mutiny that precipitated it. An elderly docent was the only other occupant of the gallery. Together we wondered how Bligh had kept the writing so impeccably neat and un-smudged in a small boat at sea.
So, what should a visitor experience be? A sensory delight for the uneducated masses, or a cerebral contemplation for the already informed? I think it should be both and everything in between, but it’s not hard to guess which of these attractions relies on visitor numbers for funding.
* I debated whether this story would be too risqué to relate to a museum audience, and then decided that my fear of doing so perhaps represents the problem we have with not communicating in an interesting way to our audience.