Interview: Inspiring The Intellect, Or Encouraging Exhibitionism

April 13, 2015



Charlotte Damgaard is the marketing director at Great World Exhibitions, the company behind the Body Worlds & The Cycle Of Life, Da Vinci The Genius and Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures, all of which have enjoyed huge success in South Africa.


Great World Exhibitions offer something between a museum approach and an art exhibition, with perhaps the best elements of both. In terms of staging, what hook needs to exist for Great World to take an interest? Not all subject matter will make an equally compelling exhibit…

Charlotte Damgaard: Our approach is more interactive and entertaining than your typical museum or art exhibition. It’s definitely true that we are very selective about which productions we bring to South Africa. As our company tagline says, they must “entertain, educate and inspire”. Interestingly, a huge range of subject matter has the potential to tick all three boxes – providing it’s delivered in an engaging and interactive way.

It must be a topic that our South African audience can really relate to. Most importantly, it must tell a brilliant story. We want professional productions created by the best exhibition producers in the world, because those are the ones that truly wow our audiences with their exceptional quality and attention to every detail.


Making exhibits about anatomy, art and ancient history desirable alternatives to the dozens of other entertainment options available – how much of a challenge is this? How does this aspect of the equation impact on venue choice, for instance?

In my opinion, South Africans have been starved of cultural experiences like the ones we bring for a long time. So they are hungry for what we’re offering them. We’ve started something new that people want, which is a huge advantage.

But yes, we also face challenges – such as finding suitable venues and convincing them to take a risk by trying something new. We also have the challenge of educating our audiences so that they understand that our exhibitions are self-guided tours using audio guides (that we’ve included in the price this time by the way as we recognise that this simple little gadget enhances a visitor’s experience ten-fold) as opposed to a sit-down show, for example. It’s hardly surprising that some people still expect the latter, since that’s all they’ve been introduced to in the past.


These exhibitions are what South African travellers used to book for when they went abroad – we now have them available to us at reasonable cost in our own backyards. Where does South Africa fit into the international scheme of things in terms of the tourism value of Great World-style exhibitions? Are we a major player in this area or more of a new market with potential?

The entire African continent is a completely new market for this industry. The truth is, to our knowledge none of these international exhibitions had ever come to Africa until we brought Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life in 2011. It was obviously a challenge to convince this first production to take this leap of faith. But once they did – and South Africans came to see the exhibitions in droves, that ceiling was broken and, as you can imagine, we now have no shortage of international producers who are keen to work with us.

That said, the South African market will likely always make less money for the international producers compared with cities in America and Europe for the same reasons that other big events make less money here. It’s a matter of people being able to pay less, the market being smaller and the rand being weak, among other things.


An obvious strength of these exhibitions is their educational value: with changing curricula, are subjects like history, science and biology still as popular with teachers as things like life skills? On the flip side, are the exhibitions effective tools to use in underlining the importance of such “old-fashioned” subjects?

Absolutely! That’s the beauty of what we do. Our most recent exhibition, Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures, welcomed its 10 000th learner some weeks ago. Many come with their art, social science or history teachers, who are very enthusiastic supporters of our exhibitions.

What’s even more interesting is that we often have, say, a whole Grade 5 group come (because Ancient Egypt is part of the Grade 5 curriculum), and then within a few days, the school calls to make another booking for their entire school! They obviously recognise that this kind of experience is rare and of huge educational value to any child studying any subject. And yes, it certainly is incredibly valuable for children to see for themselves what they read about in books or online. It brings it all to life and makes it stick in a way that books can’t do.

And I’ll bet this exhibition has also inspired some to pursue a career in archaeology or study art history one day. Teachers know this and I guess that’s why we get emails every week from teachers thanking us for making these unique experiences available to their learners.


Body Worlds, Da Vinci and Tutankhamun have all done incredibly well locally: is the future of Great World Exhibitions locally about mounting similar single shows or about expanding to hosting multiple exhibitions in different South African cities at the same time?

Yes, indeed, our dream is to host shows in various cities simultaneously and to have permanent venues where we can bring one great exhibition after another to the same tried and tested venue. Critically, that venue has to offer more than the exhibition itself. It has to have restaurants and other ancillary services and entertainment so that our customers can come for the whole day if that’s what they feel like doing.

And we’re getting closer and closer to making that a reality.