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British Museums and Art Galleries Hit by Fall in Visitors

February 12, 2017


The Switch House at Tate Modern, London
The Switch House at Tate Modern, London

The number of visitors to the UK’s major museums and galleries fell by 1.4 million last year, the first decline in almost a decade. A report by the department of culture, media and sport found that 47.6 million people visited institutions such as Tate Modern, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum between April 2015 and April 2016, a drop from the record-breaking 50 million who went in the previous 12-month period.

One of the most significant declines was in the number of young people visiting these museums for educational purposes, which dropped by over six percent from the previous year.

The Museums Association blamed security fears over terrorism, and a possible lack of blockbuster exhibitions on the scale of the V&A’s David Bowie show, for the drop in numbers.

Fewer school trips, security fears and a lack of blockbuster exhibitions blamed for decline at UK’s major attractions

Tate galleries which includes Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, saw the greatest fall, from 7.9 million to 6.7 million. It meant the British Museum once again became the most popular institution, drawing in 6.9 million visitors in 2016.

Tate said that in 2014 Tate Modern hosted its most popular ever exhibition, ‘Matisse Cutouts’, which drew in over half a million people. However, 2016 was also a successful year for Tate Modern, with its long-awaited extension, Switch House, drawing in a record-breaking 143,000 visitors on its opening weekend in June.

The Museums Association said it was disappointing that the greatest decline in visitor numbers came from educational visits and school groups. There was a 6.9 percent drop in children under 18 being taken on school trips and participating in workshops and educational activities in the galleries and museums.

Those under 18 still in formal education also visited galleries and museums less in 2016, with an overall decline of 3.1 percent. The drop could be attributable to a national education system which was recently found to be “systematically” removing arts and culture from the curriculum. The 2015 Warwick Commission found that the number of arts teachers in school had dropped by 11 percent since 2010, and that there was a 25 percent drop in those taking art and other craft-related subjects for GCSE.

Similarly art history had been dropped from the A-Level curriculum, although the government was forced to backtrack on this.

Alistair Brown, a spokesperson for the Museums Association, said: “These figures are clearly disappointing. As schools come under greater pressure, they are finding it harder to devote time to out-of-class activities such as museum visits. Children are increasingly missing out on valuable experiences that bring history, science and culture to life and expose them to new ideas.

“Last week, the government welcomed the Imagine Nation report that demonstrated the value of cultural learning, but these figures show that they need to do more to help schools and museums work together.”

For the National Gallery, the drop in numbers during 2015 was mainly due to being hit by staff strikes over the privatisation of services. The gallery said: “During 2015 the National Gallery was affected by over 100 days of strike action, and this resulted in the cancellation of many school visits and education-related programmes. This had an inevitable impact on our visitor numbers from both schools and general gallery visitation that year.”

Overseas visitors continued to make up almost half of the UK’s museum-going crowds. Over 47 percent of those who visited the government-sponsored institutions were tourists. The museum with the highest proportion of foreign tourists was the Royal Armouries museum, making up 67.5 percent of all visitors.

A DCMS spokesperson said: “Our world-class museums and galleries continue to attract huge numbers of people from across the country, including almost eight million children last year alone. We are completely committed to encouraging children of all ages and from all backgrounds to enjoy and learn from visiting museums and galleries.”

The UK’s museums are not the only ones to be hit with falling visitor numbers, in part because of terrorism fears. The Louvre recently reported that it had 7.3 million visitors in 2016, a considerable decline from the 9.3 million visitors it had boasted two years before. This included a decline of 31 percent of visitors from China, 61 percent from Japan and 18 percent from the US.

By arrangement with The Guardian

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 12th, 2017