UK museums are back open—but visitors are staying away

Our data shows that most major London art museums had many available booking slots for next-day entry despite operating reduced capacity

Raphael Court in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Raphael Court in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Visitors are not rushing back to UK national museums, with most of them still having bookable slots for the following day, even with drastically reduced capacity. This may be good news for those wanting to enjoy museums after five months of Covid-19 lockdown—but it is discouraging for museums and financially very troubling.

To test the situation, The Art Newspaper set out to see what tickets were available for the major London art museums at the beginning of last week. Checking first thing in the morning on 24 August, we searched for free-entry tickets for the following day. Our data is for permanent collections, excluding temporary exhibitions, where ticket demand obviously depends on the subject of the show.

At the National Gallery, 17 of the 24 timed slots were available. For Tate Modern and Tate Britain’s historic collection, all 27 slots had availability.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), most slots were booked up for the next week or so. This is probably because of drastically reduced hours: 11am-3pm from Thursdays to Sundays (increasing to 11am-7pm on these days from 27 August). The V&A only reopened on 6 August, so there may also have been a short-term rush from those desperate to return. (The National Gallery reopened on 8 July and the Tates on 27 July). The British Museum opened on 27 August, with tickets being widely available after the Bank Holiday opening weekend.

Tate Modern during Covid-19 lockdown © David Owens Photography

So what trends are emerging with the reopenings? Unlike for temporary exhibitions, where before Covid-19 visitors would often book weeks in advance, they now frequently decide to visit permanent collections only a day or two before. The demography of those returning is interesting. At the National Gallery, at least, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of visitors aged 34 and below. This is a cause for concern, since these are obviously the museum-goers of the future.

Overall, the numbers returning to museums are still very small in this period of social distancing. Weekly data published by the UK’s culture department shows that the figure is currently running at 12% of normal summer levels for national museums. A few weeks ago, just before the reopenings, they were expecting to get around 20% of pre-Covid-19 levels and Tate director Maria Balshaw told us that she was hoping for 30%. (Tate’s August figure is believed to be around 15%-20%.) Front-of-house staff are certainly doing their best to welcome back and reassure visitors.

But it is still early days, and museums are hoping that there will be a substantial improvement next year with the return of tourism, reduced social distancing and greater public confidence. In the meantime, the current low numbers are having a drastic financial impact in terms of lost revenue from museum shops, catering and exhibition ticket sales.