VN museums struggle to bring in the crowds
|High praise: Museum of Ethnology was listed by TripAdvisor as one of the best museums in Asia. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
Despite three domestic museums being ranked by TripAdvisor as among Asia's finest, most Vietnamese exhibitions are unable to fulfil their potential and find it hard to attract visitors. Hoang Trung Hieu reports.
Nguyen Thi Mai from Thanh Xuan District in Ha Noi tightened her lips and her eyes turned red as she gazed at mementoes on display at the Museum of Ethnology that reminded her of a time when the economy was subsidised by the Government and people had to live on meagre rations.
Then she looked down at her calloused hands and was transported back to the days when she had to lug barrels of slops around everyday to feed the pigs she kept in her small living quarters.
The squeals of the pigs transmitted over the museum's sound system seemed to magnify the memory for Mai, and the hardships most poor Vietnamese people had to endure came flooding back.
The exhibition on the subsidised economy lasted for a year, and was still attracting visitors in its final days. Some people like Mai visited more than once.
The exhibition allowed visitors to see, hear and hold the mementoes that had so many memories for some, and touched the hearts of others.
Recently, the Museum of Ethnology was ranked 6th out of the top museums in Asia by TripAdvisor.com, the second time the well known tourism website has praised the museum as "excellent". The first time was last year.
The War Remnants Museum in HCM City went one better and was ranked 5th, and the Viet Nam Women's Museum was named 11th out of the top 25 museums in Asia.
According to deputy chief of the Heritage Department (Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism), Nguyen Huu Toan, there are 134 museums in Viet Nam.
"Some museums operate fairly effectively, like the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Museum of Ethnology, the Military History Museum and the War Remnants Museum. They not only exhibit items but also help to spread the culture and images of Viet Nam to the world," he said.
|Feminine touch: The Viet Nam Women's Museum has changed a lot of its layout and exhibition styles in a bid to modernise. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
However, although the number of foreign tourists to Viet Nam is increasing, not many of them are visiting the museums.
The director of travel company Ha Noi Tourist, Luu Duc Ke, said the museums' guides need to help visitors understand the value and significance of the exhibits.
"For example, the National History Museum has a lot of precious and beautiful items, but the way they are displayed is unappealing. In addition, most museum guides do not have a sufficient understanding of the artifacts on display, so they are unable to relay this information to tourists. That's why some of the tour guides bypass museums completely because they are scared they won't be able to answer visitors' questions."
The exhibits are the spirit of a museum, but many domestic museums have limited items on show.
"A reality that can be easily recognised in Viet Nam's museums is that the number of exhibits is low and not enough to make them worth visiting," said deputy director of the National History Museum, Vu Manh Ha.
According to statistics, the National History Museum owns more than 109,000 items, the Revolutionary Museum has 83,000 items, the Ho Chi Minh Museum keeps 125,000 items and the Fine Arts Museum stores some 18,000 items. These figures are low compared to national museums in other countries.
|Looking back: The Military History Museum is the place for visitors who like to study remnants of Viet Nam at war. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
The number of items on display is even fewer, Ha said. For example, in the Ho Chi Minh Museum, of the 1,888 items on display, only 14 per cent are original items that relate directly to Ho Chi Minh. This leaves visitors struggling to grasp the enormity of the cause President Ho took on, he explained.
The Ha Noi Museum, a converted pyramid constructed to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the capital, received initial funding of VND2,300 trillion, but is often deserted because there are so few items on display.
According to experts, most museums fail to play to their strengths.
One of the reasons that museums are struggling to attract visitors is that they have failed to keep up with the times. Most museums consist of quiet, echoey rooms filled with lifeless exhibits, and they don't offer interactive activities to engage visitors' interest.
"Visitors feel that many museums are similar in layout, and their displays look boring," said a museum visitor named Do Tien.
He gives an example that at most history museums, the items are displayed chronologically with a brief introduction to each period of history, but this is not what visitors want any more.
|Action packed: The Museum of Ethnology holds many activities for visitors who can experience the traditional folk games of different ethnic groups. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Museums are also failing to do enough to draw domestic and foreign visitors through their doors.
According to deputy director Ha, most tourists visit the National History Museum on holidays and weekends, not during the week.
"Each month, the museum receives only 2,000 visitors, 10 per cent less than in previous years."
In Ha Noi, only the Museum of Ethnology and the Women's Museum receive higher numbers of guests.
At a seminar tiled "How to attract visitors to museums?" that took place in Ha Noi recently, experts said that first and foremost, cognitive thinking is needed.
Nguyen Bich Van, director of the Viet Nam Women's Museum, said they should have specific strategies for development that combine interactive displays and activities.
She said the number of visitors to her museum reached 150,000 in the first three months of this year, already equal to the combined total for the whole of 2012, while TripAdvisor voted the museum one of the most attractive sites in Viet Nam.
"The museum used to welcome just 50 to 70 visitors per day, so the managers decided to give it a new look by upgrading the building and making it accessible to people with disabilities."
The Women's Museum is also looking at promotional activities, and many members of staff have been sent to study abroad to learn how other museums and institutions promote themselves.
|Taking off: The War Remnants Museum attracts many domestic and foreign visitors. — VNA/VNS Photo Phuong Vy
The War Remnants Museum in HCM City is also becoming known for its innovative practices.
Managers there decided to focus on what the museum was opened for - to display war memorabilia and give visitors a taste of the war.
Visitors now have the chance to sing and dance with artists and veterans, witnesses and victims of the war.
Huynh Ngoc Van, director of the War Remnants Museum, said one of the secrets to luring visitors is to make sure they are well looked after.
"One of the ideas we came up with was to introduce the food that was eaten during the war. We've invited former guerillas and prisoners to make these dishes at the museum so visitors can see the way they concocted dried food from banana skins or how they baked potatoes while listening to their stories."
The "cuisine of war" has become one of the highlights at the museum, and cultural exchanges involving music, food and volunteer activities for the victims of Agent Orange also leave tourists with a special feeling.
The Museum of Ethnology has its own unique way of attracting visitors now. Staff there are working to revive traditional games played by ethnic groups from around the country, and inviting visitors to join in. They've also recreated a cultural space so exhibits can be displayed in a realistic setting, giving them new life.
"I think our society has developed and people's awareness has increased. Museums that continue to put on lifeless, boring exhibitions will continue to see numbers wane. Finding their own identities and ways of making history come alive will breathe new life into our museums, and help them to preserve our cultural heritage," said visitor Nguyen Thi Mai. — VNS