Museums & Heritage

A not so golden Olympics- tourist numbers drop

London’s leading museums lose more than a million visitors during the Games, but Hirst helps Tate Modern buck the trend

London. A drop in the number of tourists to London during this summer’s Olympic Games left parts of central London resembling a ghost town at times. The impact on London’s major museums and galleries was significant: they lost more than a million visitors, a survey by The Art Newspaper has found. This is a reduction in total visitor numbers during July and August, compared with the same period last year, for the ten most popular national museums. Tate Modern, however, bucked the trend, increasing its visitors partly due to its Damien Hirst retrospective.

The Olympics (27 July-12 August) and Paralympics (29 August-9 September) led to a substantial decline in tourists to London, with potential visitors fearing transport chaos and increased hotel prices. Neither turned out to be as serious as widely predicted, although West End theatres and restaurants nevertheless noted a drop in customers. Messages played on the transport network from Mayor Boris Johnson warning that the system would be very busy during the Games were discontinued when they proved unnecessary. But by then tourists had already decided to stay away.

The fall in museum visitors represents an average drop of 16%. Although UK national museums have free entry to their permanent collections, the reduction will have cut revenue from temporary exhibition tickets, as well as from shops and catering. The fall is likely to lead to the museums suffering a total loss amounting to roughly £2m, primarily because of lower numbers at ticketed exhibitions. However, the Olympic impact varied considerably, depending on the location of the museum, the exhibition programme and the demographic mix of their visitors.

The British Museum suffered the greatest total fall, losing 307,000 visitors. It is particularly dependent on foreign tourists (70% of its annual total), making it vulnerable during the Games. The figures might have been even worse had the museum not held two major exhibitions, “The Horse” (free admission) and “Shakespeare: Staging the World”, compared with just one in summer 2011, “Treasures of Heaven”.

The National Gallery did similarly badly, with a drop of 293,000, despite “Metamorphosis”, its Titian, contemporary art and ballet exhibition. A spokeswoman said that anecdotal evidence suggests that it had numerous overseas Olympic visitors (because of its central location in Trafalgar Square), which means that UK visitors were very much down. The National Portrait Gallery lost 110,000, a similar proportional drop to its neighbour, the National Gallery.

Tate Britain followed the trend, registering a drop of 93,000. This was a reasonable result, considering that building work meant that a fifth of the galleries were closed.

Tate Modern, however, reversed the trend and did extremely well, increasing its visitor figures by 165,000. Damien Hirst proved to be a winner, attracting 463,000 during its full run (4 April-9 September). An exhibition of works by Edvard Munch was on show alongside, perhaps appealing to a different audience. Tate Modern capitalised on the Games, opening the Tanks on 16 July and Tino Sehgal’s performance piece in the Turbine Hall, which began on 24 July.

Royal Museums Greenwich suffered a 48% fall in visitors, the highest of any of the museums because the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian events and the modern pentathlon took place in Greenwich Park. The museum has three venues in the park, and its main building formed a backdrop to the sport. The National Maritime Museum remained open, with its figures falling from 220,000 to 167,000. The impact on the Royal Observatory was even greater, since it was closed 23 July-14 August; the two-month total consequently fell from 195,000 to just 64,000. The Queen’s House was shut entirely this summer (last July-August it had 33,000 visitors). The museum will receive some compensation from the Olympic organisers, which is being calculated.

The Victoria and Albert Museum experienced a decline of just 1,000, according to its figures, a tiny fall. It had on an exhibition about Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the Olympic and Paralympic cauldron. Its other big show was on ballgowns and British glamour since 1950.

Of the two other South Kensington museums, the Science Museum lost 109,000 visitors. A spokeswoman says this may have been due to initial “media reports on crowding in London”, as well as “the exceptionally wide spread of cultural activities taking place all over [the capital]”. The Natural History Museum was down by 76,000, which in percentage terms was considerably better than its neighbour.

Meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum, which has its principal site in Kennington in south London, attracted 50,000 fewer visitors than last summer.

Around a third of total visitors at all major London museums and galleries are from abroad, so tourism is vital. During the Games around 900,000 visitors stayed overnight at some point. However, other visitors (foreign or domestic) proved reluctant to travel to London. Official tourism figures for the summer are not yet available.

This is the short-term result. The government and tourism promoters London & Partners predict that the city will benefit in the long run because London has had so much positive global coverage. However, London is already so well known to cultural tourists that it is debatable whether it needed the Olympics to put it on the tourist map.

Olympic results: visitor numbers

July/August 2012 July/August 2011 Gain/loss

Tate Modern 1,122,000 957,000 +165,000 +17%

British Museum 974,000 1,281,000 -307,000 -24%

Natural History Museum 948,000 1,024,000 -76,000 -7%

National Gallery 766,000 1,059,000 -293,000 -28%

Science Museum 606,000 715,000 -109,000 -15%

V&A 474,000 475,000 -1,000 -0.2%

National Portrait Gallery 320,000 430,000 -110,000 -26%

Royal Museums Greenwich 231,000 448,000 -217,000 -48%

Imperial War Museum 164,000 214,000 -50,000 -23%

Tate Britain 189,000 282,000 -93,000 -33%

Total 5,794,000 6,885,000 -1,091,000 -16%

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 239 October 2012