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Why Audiences Matter: The National Gallery Told Through Frederick Wiseman’s Documentary

Being a member of The National Gallery I have already seen its amazing permanent collection many times, as well as quite a few exhibitions (recently, “Rembrandt – The Late Works”). However, I had never had the chance to go behind the scenes and discover how the whole museum works. Thanks to Frederick Wiseman’s documentary National Gallery I have now had a taste of what it means to engage with audiences when you’re home to some of the most prestigious paintings in the world.

I have to admit that Wiseman’s doc is a little bit chaotic, mainly because the director opted for a narrative that takes the form of a flux of voices and contributions captured on camera with no proper credits until the very end. So very often it’s hard to really understand the exact role of the person speaking, not to mention their identity. Curators and specialists, guides, restorers, marketing managers and, of course, the Director Nicholas Penny are all part of a 3-hour ride across opening events, exhibition rooms, laboratories and workshops.

How to introduce an audience to the masterpieces of The National Gallery.

Despite this, the documentary really captures the passion that is at the heart of The National Gallery, its busy environment, as well as some unexpected scenes happening under the unperturbed eyes of masterpieces of Western art, which are framed in all their grandiose beauty thanks to repeated and powerful close-ups and details.

But if you perceive The Gallery mainly as a traditional institution, you might be surprised to know that a concern for its audiences is central to all the activities planned during the year. It’s no secret that nowadays audience engagement is crucial for museums and institutions, but watching how The National Gallery reaches out to its audiences with a process that involves a mix of storytelling and marketing, media relations and communication strategies, is revealing. As the collage of micro-lectures that composes the spinal column of the documentary clearly shows, the whole idea is each time to find a unique way to approach the specific kind of visitor, without losing the museum’s (brand) identity.

A dance performance at The National Gallery captured by Frederick Wiseman's camera.

Focusing on how The National Gallery modulates its interaction with visitors, depending on demographics, special needs, exhibitions and events, the documentary shows the process of engaging with them in various ways: from lectures to guided tours for kids, from piano concerts and dance performances to drawing lessons, up to classes for blind people using Braille to read the paintings.

As soon as the screening of National Gallery ends, you’ll probably find yourself longing to explore the Gallery’s collections. Don’t resist this impulse, because it will be a feast for your eyes. And even if you’ve visited many times, going back to those paintings after learning what’s behind them will force you to look at the collections with a new interest. What more could you ask of a museum?