Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Art galleries around the world are experiencing a rise in admissions but this comes at a price, according to The New York Times's Rachel Donadio, who said soaring attendance had turned museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces

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The Independent Culture

London's most prestigious museums and galleries are preparing for a bumper August as tourists pour in to see the capital's cultural treasures. But are these institutions becoming the victims of their own success? With schoolchildren, art students and parents with buggies all competing for elbow room, are exhibitions being turned into "crowded saunas"?

Art galleries around the world are experiencing a rise in admissions, with millions queueing every year to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, the Botticelli Rooms in the Uffizi, Florence and the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. The numbers have been rising as emerging middle classes from Asia and Eastern Europe seek cultural experiences abroad.

Yet this rise in visitors comes at a price, according to Rachel Donadio of The New York Times, who said this week: "Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation." One visitor recently compared the queue for the Mona Lisa as being like the Tube at rush hour.

The British Museum experienced record visitor numbers of 6.7 million last year, making it the second-most visited art institution in the world behind the Louvre. The popularity of the Bloomsbury museum was driven partly by big exhibitions such as "Life and Death in Pompeii" and "Herculaneum" but also in the tourism boom after the Olympics.

The British Museum's visitors are 60 per cent made up from abroad and any rise in tourism to the capital means its visitor numbers increase as a result. A spokeswoman for the museum says that all of the UK's biggest institutions closely monitor the number of admissions over the discomfort of overcrowding. Visitors to the museum rose throughout 2013 and continued to rise in the first three months of this year.

"August is a very busy month," she admits. "The tourists can be accommodated but museums are constantly asking what systems we can put in place to make sure people enjoy the experience."

The British Museum can receive as many as 28,000 people in a day and exhibits like the Rosetta Stone remain hugely popular. Yet it believes the design of the forecourt helps it remain manageable. "The major museums in London have big buildings that provide access to a large number of people," she says. "Ticketed events are easier to deal with as they are timed. But it's difficult, because we don't want to change the principle of free entry."

The British Museum has extended hours for its recent shows such as "Vikings", but doing that is costly for an institution. It also opens late every Friday night.

Galleries are increasingly keen to tackle overcrowding to avoid the "gallery rage" that one critic left the hugely busy "Gaugin: Maker of Myth" exhibition at Tate Modern with in 2011.

For Tate Modern, 2012 was the record year for attendances thanks to the post-Olympic tourist bump and a hugely popular Damien Hirst show. The closure of the Turbine Hall meant numbers dropped last year but look set to return to peak levels in 2014 with the success of the current "Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs" exhibition.

The gallery has looked to keep up with demand and attempts to prevent overcrowding by opening every Sunday and encouraging visits during less busy times like Friday nights.

For the final weekend of the exhibition, which looks set to be one of the most popular in Tate Modern's history, there will be a special 36-hour opening starting on 6 September at 10am going through to 10pm the following day.

Blockbuster shows are increasingly considering such tactics, encouraging people to visit on early and late openings when it's less packed and timing the entry so only a certain amount of visitors are let in at once.

When Tate Modern was converted from a power station to a gallery it was designed for two million visitors. Yet the average quickly rose to over five million and the gallery admitted that this meant there was "serious overcrowding, particularly at weekends". But the new development project, a separate wing designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron opens in 2016. It should mean that gallery rage should be less of a problem, in the short term, at least.