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Is the UK museum boom over?

Analysis of government data and The Art Newspaper's own figures reveals a steady decline in visitors since 2014

Are cracks showing in the UK's museum boom? Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall; Photo: Loz Pycock

Visitor figures at England’s nationally funded museums have slumped, revealing a disturbing trend. Although recent newspaper reports have focused on the performance of individual London museums, from the sharp decline at the National Portrait Gallery to the booming figures at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a much more pertinent issue is emerging that should cause concern.

In 2008/09, the number of visitors to 15 museums funded by the central government was 39.7 million. This increased every year to a high point of 50.8 million in 2014/15. The numbers have dropped consistently since and will be around 46.5 million in 2017/18, the financial year that ended on 31 March.

The upward and then downward trend is also reflected in data collated by The Art Newspaper for our annual attendance survey, which is done by calendar (not financial) year. The Art Newspaper’s totals for the six main national art museums rose from 20.8 million in 2008 to 25.5 million in 2014 and then fell to 23.6 million in 2017.

What is striking is that both sets of figures—those provided by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and The Art Newspaper’s own survey—show a continuous increase and then a decrease in visitors.

The data for national museums covers those in England that are funded by the DCMS. There are 15 such institutions, some of which have several venues. The advantage of using data for so many museums is that it minimises the temporary effects of blockbuster exhibitions or building closures and openings, which can have an impact on figures for individual institutions.

The fall

What lies behind the recent decline in numbers? The change is partly due to the exclusion of Tyne & Wear Museums, which received around 1.8 million visitors, from the DCMS data from 2015/16, when its funding arrangements changed. And yet, even stripping out Tyne & Wear, there has been a loss of 2.5 million visitors over the past three financial years, representing a total reduction of 5%.

Nationally funded museums are highly dependent on international tourists, who make up 47% of their visitors. Foreign tourism to the UK has increased at around 5% a year since 2014/15, assisted more recently by the cheaper pound after the Brexit referendum. The upswing should have boosted museum attendance figures significantly, which suggests that the overall drop has resulted from a loss of UK visitors.

This is confirmed by the experience of the National Gallery in London. When figures declined considerably in 2017, its director, Gabriele Finaldi, told his trustees that “overseas visitor numbers were not down and the fall in numbers seemed to be from the UK”. So, one should consider why UK visitors are staying away from museums.

Fears concerning terrorism are a factor, the worst incidents last year occurring at London Bridge, on Westminster Bridge and in Manchester. These atrocities did discourage visits, particularly to London museums and especially for schoolchildren. Visits by children aged under 16 were down 6% in 2016/17 on the previous year. That presents a challenge for the future.

Many leading figures in the museum sector believe that the reduction in the number of UK visitors is partly an effect of the squeeze on personal incomes. Taking a family of four from Birmingham to London for the day and paying for food and other expenses could cost more than £200, even if there is free admission to the museums’ permanent collections.

According to Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery until 2015, “pressures on people’s personal budgets are real, and the consistently rising cost of travel has to be a factor”. Mark Jones, who headed the Victoria and Albert Museum until 2011, agrees, saying the fall in visitor numbers is probably due to “static or declining household incomes”.

The cultural historian Robert Hewison attributes the fall in visitor numbers to government funding cuts. “DCMS-funded museums have done well in making up the shortfall, but this has meant staff cuts at all levels, and inevitably that means less activity, as well as low morale,” he says. Although the cuts began in 2010, there can be a lag of a few years before they impact on the visitor experience, in terms of the quality of exhibitions and the presentation of permanent collections.

Rising exhibition ticket prices also discourage visitors, particularly Londoners, who are more likely to go to shows than those living elsewhere. Standard tickets for Tate Modern’s exhibition Picasso 1932, which opened last month, cost £22, breaking the psychological £20 barrier that UK museums have tried to avoid breaching. The same gallery’s highly successful 2014 show Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs cost £16.30. In effect, the price of a Tate blockbuster has risen by 35% in four years.

With the fall in numbers in recent years comes the danger of a vicious circle. Under pressure from funding cuts, museums become less ambitious, which makes them less attractive to the public, and so gradually the idea of visiting museums becomes less enticing. Falling visitor numbers produce less income from shops and catering—and then the problems really set in.

Visitors to major museums in 2017

British Museum: 5.9 million

Tate Modern : 5.7 million

National Gallery : 5.2 million

Victoria and Albert Museum : 3.8 million

Tate Britain : 1.8 million

National Portrait Gallery: 1.3 million

Source: Art's Most Popular: exhibition and museum figures 2017

The decline in visitor numbers: the background to our analysis

Government data, used in this article and the graph above, comes from DCMS statistics on 13 national and two funded non-national museums. In 2016/17, the museums covered were the British Museum, Geffrye Museum, Horniman Museum, Imperial War Museums, National Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, Royal Armouries, Royal Museums Greenwich, Science Museum Group, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum and Wallace Collection.

A few venues have joined or left the list in the past ten years (most importantly, the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London was included from 2012/13 and Tyne & Wear Museums excluded from 2015/16). The DCMS has released data for the first ten months of 2017/18, so The Art Newspaper has made estimates for February and March. Free admission to permanent collections began in 2001, so our survey of the past decade eliminates the initial surge in visits that followed.

Figures have been rounded to the nearest 0.1 million.

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