For the first time, more than half of the visitors to the UK’s national museums this year are expected to come from abroad. In 2014/15, national museums had 23.8 million overseas visitors—47% of all visitors, a 3% rise on the previous year.
Ed Vaizey, the UK’s culture minister, is delighted by the trend. “It shows that our museums are great for tourism,” he tells The Art Newspaper. For some, though, the growing number of foreign visitors poses the question: why should UK taxpayers subsidise free admission to national museums that may be visited more frequently by foreigners?
Tim Reeve, the deputy director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), says that because of “the part that museums play in the growth of our cultural tourism economy, charging admission would be a false economy”. George Osborne, the chancellor, accepted this reasoning in his spending review in November, when he decided not to cut the budgets of national museums.
With rising numbers of tourists flocking to London, others ask what museums are doing for overseas guests. Giles Waterfield, a museum specialist and former director of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, points out that the National Gallery appeals to a global audience even though it has traditionally collected European painting. Its main audio tour is available in 11 foreign languages and its guidebooks in nine.
The British Museum has always had highly international collections, and its global role grew under its recently retired director Neil MacGregor, Waterfield says. Meanwhile, Tate Modern is “ultra-international” in its collecting policy and exhibitions, although Tate Britain, which has fewer overseas visitors, is “less developed” for tourists, he says. Most foreign visitors to the Tate’s London galleries come from France, the US, Spain, Italy and Germany, according to a spokesman for the institution.
Top of the travel itinerary: what tourists want to see 1. British Museum: 4.3 million
2. National Gallery: 4.1 million
3. Tate (Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives): 3.7 million
4. Natural History Museum: 3 million
5. Victoria and Albert Museum: 2.1 million
• The numbers of foreign visitors are taken from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s figures for 2014/15