Museum attendance - have we reached bursting point?

February 23 2015

Image of Museum attendance - have we reached bursting point?

Picture: Independent

In the UK, museum attendance is up - there were 49 million visits to the 16 'national' museums funded by the Government's culture department (DCMS). That's a rise of 4% from the previous year (47m). Can all our museums cope with the rise?

But - the BBC's Will Gompertz points out that both the National Gallery and Tate have lost 'domestic' visitors:

The Tate has lost around a million domestic visitors in the last six years, dropping from a high of 4.5 million in 2008/09 to 3.55 million last year.

The National Gallery has seen its domestic visits fall by more than half a million, from 2.9 million in 08/09 to 2.3 million last year.

According to DCMS' latest figures, the National Gallery's visitorship is made up (in the last year) of 61% overseas, and 39% domestic. For Tate the figure is 50/50. Go outside London, and the figures swing much more towards UK visitors - the National Museums Liverpool, for example, has just 16% of its visitors coming from overseas.

Anyone visiting the National Gallery can tell that the number of overseas visitors has increased. It may be something to do with the reduction in blockbuster exhibitions, or it may even be that the crowds are putting off regular UK visitors. The National Gallery has seen an impressive growth spurt; from 4.4m visitors in 2008/9 to 5.9m in 2013/14. The headline numbers for Tate, by comparison, show on average the total figure is quite stable between: 7m and 7.5m since 2008/9. Indeed, last year it saw an overall decline in its visitor numbers, from 7.75m in 2012/13 to 7.03m in 2013/14. You can look at the data here.

The Grumpy Art Historian is worried about the implications of more and more visitors to places like the National Gallery:

Dozens of the greatest masterpieces are now almost impossible to see. But visitor numbers are an easily quantified 'performance indicator',  and everyone pays obeisance to the gods of access and inclusion, so no one wants to talk about it. The global population is about seven billion. If we assume seventy sentient years and one visit per person per lifetime, that implies visits to the world's greatest museums will rise to a hundred million (about a fifteen fold increase for the busiest English museums). However you play with the numbers, a bigger and richer population with increased leisure time and disposable income will mean increased museum visits. And it will be simply impossible for everyone to enjoy equal access.

It is true that the National Gallery can sometimes feel that it is bursting at the seams. At least in the more popular rooms. It's always quiet in the French 17th and 18th Century galleries, for example. Some worry about time limits, re-imposing visitor charges, or re-visiting the photograph ban. But whether we like it or not, rising museum attendance is here to stay - and that's a Good Thing. I'm delighted that more and more people are interested in art, even in 'old' art, and well done to the National Gallery for building its audiences so successfully.

For me, the solution to this problem is perfectly simple: open longer, and build. 

First, opening times. I'm not surprised that the number of UK visitors is declining in places like the National Gallery: most of us are at work when it's open, and somehow we've all gotten busier, so weekends are often taken up with other things. The occasional late night opening is helpful, but it's usually on a night when you're not free. However, if places like the National Gallery were regularly open till, say, 8pm or 9pm, then many who work in London or nearby would be able to visit more regularly. Many come up to London for a play or other evening event - why must visual art only be a day time activity? Obviously, the same goes for other institutions all over the UK. I'd also wager that later opening times would help with fundraising, for you'd get in an entirely different audience than, say, the overseas tourist who is hardly likely to become a long-term gallery supporter.

And secondly, building: the National Gallery has been too small for some time now. And yet it owns the freehold of a vast site behind the Gallery, on Orange St, which is currently a hotel and office block. It needs to be turned into a new extension, and swiftly - but the Gallery trustees are wedded to the idea that it should be kept as a cash cow, by letting out the site. In fact, the site is quite decrepit, and costs a lot to maintain, so that in 2013, the last year for which I can find figures, it pulled in only £2.3m. 

An entirely different and more radical solution to the problem of visitor numbers has been arrived at by the Liechtenstein collection in Austria. The Prince of Liechtenstein decided that the vistor numbers there were so low, and dwindling, that he would shut the museum, and instead take the art to the people, so to speak, with an expanded programme of loans. In this new interview, the Liechtenstein Museum's director, Johann Kraeftner, speaks about the problem of reacting to shifts in vistor patterns:

On the one side, the prince didn’t want to keep the museum open daily from 9am till the evening because the attendance was low. It is a general trend. I’ve just been in Munich and there too the museums are empty. All the people seem to focus on the big museums, like the Louvre in Paris or the National Gallery in London. In Vienna just the Kunsthistorisches Museum is attended, while the rest is empty. What we want to do is to bring our pieces to the people around the world and set our aims. Collectors are getting more and more public, more and more famous so we get a lot of request to collaborate and put on display our exhibitions. We will contribute to an exhibition in Mexico. By the way we are also discussing some possible exhibitions in the Middle East, when these museums will be ready.

As I'm not one of those who frets about moving paintings around (they're generally much tougher than people think), I'm all in favour of the Prince's new direction. That said, I was lucky enough to go around the Museum in Vienna last year on a private tour; the Rubens/Van Dyck Decius Mus paintings, for example, was a great treat to see in private (and well worth the eye-watering admission price of €500).

Update - a reader writes:

Last week I visited  the current John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Despite there being tickets for timed entry, the rooms many very small, were completely packed. I saw some great pictures but there may have been many more I could have seen if only I had not needed to peer over the six deep crowds in front of every picture. As a viewing experience it was really very poor indeed. Surely our  National Galleries in London can do better than this?

Another reader writes:

I am one of the overseas visitors to European museums.  When I first began to travel to Europe, I  would visit "the must sees" the National Gallery, Louvre etc, and I am so very glad I did.  Now I look for the smaller gem of museum such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Courtauld Gallery that I will visit for the first time in November.

I would call too many museum visitors a good problem but, I would suggest finding a way, not only in the UK but in the US of promoting smaller museums for visitors to explore.

While another asks:

I visit a national museum in London at least twice a week, I've never been asked my nationality during my visit, on what evidence is the assertion that the number of domestic visitors is in decline?

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