Michelangelo's david at the Accademia. Image by Richard Mortel via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 DEED Attribution 2.0 Generic

The Accademia in Florence – the real experience

News Travel & Tourism

In a recent article in the Guardian, director of the Accademia in Florence Cecilie Hollberg claimed her museum offers “a high-quality experience”. Not so, say the tour guides who are in the museum almost every day.

According to Hollberg, she has improved the customer experience to a considerable degree at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Home to Michelangelo’s David, the museum is a popular destination for visitors to the Tuscan city.

Having been put off many times over the years from entering the museum by the huge queues filling the street outside, I asked the people on the ground what they thought of the customer experience.

 I shared Hollberg’s Guardian article with a Florence tour guides’ Whatsapp group. The responses were not flattering.

“Was this an interview in a parallel reality?” one queried.

“It’s an absolute nightmare out the front. She needs to speak to the staff manning the door.”

“The signage is still unclear, and most people still have no idea the music room is there.”

“How self-congratulatory these directors are…” another mocked.

Not a promising start.

Shambolic and always delays

I spoke with Sarah, an English language guide based in Florence, on 23rd April, a day of torrential rain and the polar blast which brought temperatures dropping like a stone. She spent an extra hour in the rain – unpaid – due to problems entering the Accademia.

“It’s the same every time it rains, the two small security scanners cannot cope with wet bags and coats, leading to delays”, she said.

“As for the signage being improved within the museum itself, it is still shambolic. People have no idea where they’re going, and certainly not many find themselves in the room with the musical instruments.”

I also asked Sarah about the number of visitors in the building at the same time and whether people can clearly see the exhibits.

“I feel there are too many people in the museum at once. The group sizes are too large which can lead to blockages moving through. The Accademia is a much smaller museum than the Uffizi, but here a guide can enter with 19 customers. The Uffizi limits us to 15 guests, with extra payment for more than 9 guests. A more sensible approach in my view.”

Inside the Accademia, October 2023. Image by Rhododendrites via Wikipedia under Creative License
Inside the Accademia, October 2023. Image by Rhododendrites via Wikipedia under Creative License

Sarah’s fellow guide Leo also feels Hollberg is more concerned with revenue than customer experience.

“Hollberg has criticised others in terms of creating a business from a museum, but this is what she is doing too. The museum is too small for the amount of people that pass through, but to my mind she is more interested in the ticket price and the revenue that creates.”

Over 2million visitors in 2023

The visitor numbers appear to reflect the views of the guides. It was proudly announced earlier this year that the Accademia had surpassed more than two million visitors in 2023. This up from the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when 1,704,776 visitors passed through the Accademia’s doors, according to Statista.

That’s a lot of people. Granted the opening hours have been extended, but as the queues outside show, that is still a lot of people attempting to pass through at any one time.

Queues for the Accademia on 3rd April 2024
Queues for the Accademia on 3rd April 2024

How many of these visitors were local? The figures provided by Statista for 2019 and 2022, the years shouldering the pandemic, show 28% and 23% respectively of visitors were free entrants. The museum is open for free to all on one Sunday every month, and to Florentine residents all the time.

Even allowing for the percentage of free visits proportionate to visitor numbers, it would not seem the locals are getting through the doors in greater numbers.

Protecting David’s image

Tacky David souvenirs

Hollberg has been director of the Accademia since 2015, and is a fervent champion of David’s legacy. Throughout her tenure, she has steadfastly opposed the commercialisation of David’s image, considering it a “degrading” practice. She has instigated numerous legal actions through Italy’s heritage code.

Since 2017, the Accademia has secured hundreds of thousands of euros in damages as a result of those legal battles.

However, the litigations have not stopped the proliferation of David likenesses, many of which can be bought by illegal vendors on the doorstep of the Accademia. During drier days, hawkers will unroll their posters of David to tempt those bored waiting in the queue.

Heaven forbid you should accidentally step on one. Expect then an aggressive vendor in your face. Whether or not Hollberg has tried to work with the current mayor and the police forces to curb this activity, I don’t know. But certainly making your own front yard clear of the things you are so vehemently against would be a good place to start.

This apparent blindness of Hollberg’s to the true experience of those visiting the Accademia is not promising. Perhaps she should show less concern over aprons with David’s genitalia on them, that ship sailed long ago, and more on the customer experience within her museum which houses some of the world’s most exquisite exhibits.

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