The role of wax museums before TV was to bring the news to life, allowing the public to see up close what the rich, famous, infamous and degenerate looked like. In today’s super-connected society, where news comes in live from the red carpet or battlefront to your smart phone, what is the enduring appeal of wax museums?
Madame Tussauds, the oldest wax museum brand, traces its history back over 200 years, with Madame Tussaud creating her first model, Voltaire, in 1777 under the direction of Dr. Philippe Curtius, for whom she was a housekeeper. During the French Revolution Madame Tussaud modelled many unfortunate victims of the guillotine, even rather gruesomely going through the corpses to find the decapitated heads of prominent aristocrats. After the doctor’s death Madame Tussaud inherited his collection of wax figures and began a touring exhibition which eventually came to rest in Baker Street London. For sixpence, visitors were able to see prominent figures and even villains in the Chamber of Horrors.
Wax museums have spread worldwide as popular visitor attractions and in recent years seem to be doing rather well, breaking into new markets beyond the US and Europe. The Madame Tussauds brand, now owned by Merlin Entertainments as part of their expanding Midway Operating Group, has 13 attractions across four continents, with Madame Tussauds Tokyo opening in 2013. Ripleys Entertainment, owners of Louis Tussaud's WaxWorks, started by Madame Tussaud’s great grandson, have successful attractions in the US and India.
With advances in literacy and the exponential growth of news channels, wax museums have changed their role to become less a source of news and, according to Madame Tussauds, more a “commentary on popular celebrity”. Over the years we have seen the barriers come down and photo opportunities with wax celebs become an increasingly popular way to engage visitors.
We asked four industry experts why wax museums are still popular visitor attractions and what the secret is to remaining relevant.
Nikky Marsh, Global Marketing Director, Madame Tussauds
In my opinion the secret of the enduring appeal of wax museums is good old fashioned curiosity, fascination and admiration. Madame Tussauds is the only place where you can get close and personal to the many notables of past and present that have shaped history as we know it. Where else can you get a photo with Brad, Angelina and The Queen of England in one building?
Long gone are the ropes and poles which acted as barriers here at Madame Tussauds. We now provide unique, close-up experiences for our guests to interact and connect with their favourite figures……. The process which we used to creating the figures has stayed relatively the same throughout our 200 year history, with the figures being sculpted by hand. We could, I’m sure, produce our figures quicker using modern technologies; however we fear that the personal touches and personality that our skilled artists capture may be lost with the introduction of a new process such as scanning.
Richard Hollyer, owner of Hollyer Projects and former project manager and skilled craftsman at Tussauds Group Studios for 18 years. Richard recently managed the refurbishment of Madame Tussauds Las Vegas.
If someone mentions ‘wax museum’, the first name you think of is Madame Tussauds; a household brand across the globe.
I started working for the Tussauds Studios in 1990 and recall a fact that on average, UK residents will visit Madame Tussauds twice in their lifetime; once as a child and once to take their own children! This may still be true, but whatever the visitor numbers are the Madame Tussauds brand is a worldwide success with new attractions opening up in more and more countries and drawing a mixture of cultures.
I think there are numerous reasons why a wax attraction has appeal; from wanting to get up close to your favourite pop star, to sizing up a past legend or infamous historic leader ‘first-hand’. The interest in moving amongst some of the most celebrated beings on Earth, and all in one convenient place, is fascinating for anyone aged from 5 to 105, so where better to visit as a family?
There’s such a wide audience generally – standing in the queue line at Madame Tussauds London, will be tourists from every continent together with coach loads of school groups - after all, the attraction will also educate in a variety of ways. Any gaps between these groups are filled with the constant flow of domestic visitors.
I would say that most visitors will enjoy a couple of hours pointing out famous faces, taking photos of themselves draped around their idols and exclaining that “the celebrities look so much taller on the TV!” However, some will appreciate the models as incredible works of art, knowing that a sculptor has modelled these life-sized figures and a make-up artist has painstakingly inserted each individual hair to create the likeness. No robotic production line here! (see right: Johnny Rotten and Richard)
The wax attractions are keeping up with the times, installing interactive props and fun elements linked to the wax figures for visitors to ‘putt with Tiger Woods’ or ‘sing to the X Factor judges’, but at the end of the day everyone’s there to see who’s in and who’s out and just enjoy a great and traditional experience.
Mikkel Sonne, owner of Hello! Experience Design and former Head of Design and Development at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Mikkel started his career sweeping floors at the local wax museum after school, and wrote a blog for Blooloop last year on “The Wax Museum After Dark”.
Our desire to see celebrities in a 3D form is certainly nothing new. All through history, man has made replicas of the who's who in the current time in stone, marble, bronze and wax, adding the sense of dimension that drawings or paintings cannot archive.
Today we have an abundance of images of politicians, royalty, movie stars and celebrities. But they are flat. Only in a wax museum can we get as close to 'the real thing' as many of us ever will. And we get the freedom to stare uninhibited, comment, compare size and sometimes even run our fingers through their hair.
Wax museums are adapting the visitor experience today first and foremost by the choice of exhibits – by showing figures of who the target group wants to see and not by trying to be a who's who and include every politician and royalty. Less suits more sex appeal seems to be the concept for successful operators.
Apart from the obvious number one requirement for a wax museum (lifelikeness of the figures), the displays are also of paramount importance to the experience. The fragile waxworks are no longer protected by ropes and glass, but instead invite visitors to touch and interact with them. A little thing like getting rid of the platforms most figures used to be displayed on has improved the experience of being able to walk up to and stand next to the stars.
Many museums are also using features such as hands-on exhibits, actors and special effects to add interactivity and drama to the show.
But if you took away the touch screens and coloured lights, wax museums would still be attractive because the truly lifelike figures have an eerie and timeless appeal that transcends whatever may be the flavour of the month on MTV. The artistry behind some of these portraits in wax are striking, and the ability to create something that looks alive can be spine chilling. Because how can you know it isn't?
We use wax figures in three of our brands: our 31 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museums; our five Guinness World Records Museums; and in our five Louis Tussaud’s Wax Works. We have our own art and wax department at our corporate headquarters in Orlando where everything from molding to casting to hair placement to designing and sewing the wardrobe takes place.
“Contemporary freaks and God’s special people”, as Robert Ripley himself called them, are perfect specimens to be immortalized in wax. Many of the best wax figures in our attractions tell a simple story just by looking at them. What better way to show how different a person is than by displaying a life-size duplicate of that person?
People from all walks of life enjoy recognizing the “celebrity” amongst them, whether it be from the files of Believe it or Not!, the stars of Hollywood or Bollywood or their local news anchor. Visiting an attraction that showcases these celebrities by the dozens gives our guests the opportunity to get as close to mingling with the stars as they probably ever will. As it has been since Madame Tussaud opened her first museum in 1835, the popularity of viewing wax figures up close is not a secret. It’s popular because it is fun!
The popularity of rubbing elbows with wax celebrities has not waned over the years because of exactly that reason. Where else can you walk up to someone the world recognizes and be allowed to hug them and have your photo taken? Where else can you see the likes of Lizardman, with green tattoos of scales all over his body up close and personal?
The same goes for the Mexican Vampire Woman or even to the likeness of Boxing champion Bernard Hopkins (right). When we first displayed the Hopkins figure, the men would come up and have a photo taken of themselves staring down the champ with their hands in a fist at his chin. When it was the girl’s time for a photo, she would hug the statue and touch the boxer’s bare midriff. Now, where else could you do that and have so much fun? Plus, they create their own souvenir and will remember your attraction as long as they keep that special photo!
There are few stanchions or ropes or barriers at modern wax displays. Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Smile for the camera and hug, kiss and stroke your favorite character! There are often videos accompanying the wax figure showing how it was made and many times the figure is placed in a tableau with other icons that tells an even deeper story.
Displaying wax figures is to display “real” virtual reality. The near likeness of the celebrity stands there, doesn’t complain if your camera doesn’t work the first time, doesn’t yell at you if you step on his feet or place your hands inappropriately on his body.
It is great family fun and a one of a kind experience. That’s why it has lasted.