Toronto team shared how long the headset devices take to recharge,
the MCA used the information to order enough units to handle peak
While the show’s success at other museums set a positive precedent
for the MCA team, it also presented a danger. “The risk was that we
would take a very expensive show that we were selling tickets to, and we
wouldn’t get where we needed to be in terms of at least breaking even,”
Ms. Hanner says.
To partially mitigate that risk, the team decided early on to base the
project budget on estimated ticket sales, donors, a temporary Bowie-themed store outside the exhibition space and a corporate sponsor.
Yet it wouldn’t be enough to be the exhibition’s only U.S. presenter if
potential visitors didn’t hear about it. The project team had to design
a communications plan that “made sure the awareness was out there,”
Ms. Hanner says.
With the largest advertising budget in MCA history—about twice
that of a typical exhibition—the communications plan entailed paid
advertising and a grassroots campaign with buttons, postcards and
temporary tattoos. It also involved leveraging media interest in David
Bowie—outlets ranging from local radio stations to magazines like
Rolling Stone and The Economist.
Passing the Tests
At the V&A, a record 311,000 visitors saw “David Bowie Is.” To handle
the unprecedented number of expected patrons, the MCA team recognized the organization would need a new online ticketing system with
timed slots, rather than general admission tickets. “There was no way to
execute this project without a new ticketing system,” Ms. Hanner says.
The project team hired a third-party software-design company to
develop the ticketing software, which was capable of integrating previous users’ stored financial information. During the ticketing system’s
design phase, the team determined that the exhibition floor had to
include waiting space on the ground floor for day-of ticket-purchasers
so that they would not get frustrated and leave if not allowed to enter
upon arrival. Groups of ticket holders were allowed to enter every 30
minutes from another waiting space on the fourth floor, where the
exhibition was located.
“Because organizations our size don’t typically do shows this big, we
couldn’t really anticipate the stress on our ticketing system, so we strug-
gled to know how many people might be visiting us simultaneously,”
Ms. Chun says. “We didn’t know how much time people would spend
in the exhibition, which is a big factor in calculating how many tickets
you make available in the timed ticketing environment.”
Again, the MCA team considered lessons learned from other “David
Bowie Is” venues, which found that visitors spent from 90 minutes to
two hours in the show. “We knew that if people spent longer than that,
we were probably going to be in trouble with crowding,” Ms. Chun says.
To load-test the new system, the team had 200 users access it at
exactly the same time. The team also tested the system on smaller MCA
August 2013: The Museum of
Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago
announces it will mount “David
Bowie Is.” The museum sets an aggressive attendance goal of 150,000
to recoup the exhibit’s US$2 million
September 2013: The Art Gallery of
Ontario in Toronto, Canada opens its
version of the exhibit, offering crucial
lessons to the MCA team.
October 2013: The MCA team
begins developing a custom ticketing
system to handle high demand.
November 2013: The MCA team
conducts the “Bowie Crush” capacity
July 2014: The online ticketing
August 2014: The installation of
more than 400 objects begins.
September 2014: “David Bowie Is”
opens at the MCA. The project team
begins tracking detailed metrics on
January 2015: The exhibition closes,
having exceeded its attendance goal.
More than 193,000 people visited,
making it the most-attended exhibit
in the MCA’s history.