The only way is up?

Maurice Davies, 26.09.2012
Museum visits have gone up despite cuts
In the past year, over half of adults in England visited a museum. It’s the highest level of participation in museums in recent times. The figure has steadily increased from 42.3% in 2005/6 to 51.3% now.

The figures come from the latest release of DCMS’s Taking Part survey. Pleasingly, it confirms people are visiting of their own free will: "The vast majority of visits were made in people’s own free time, with a small percentage attending for paid work or for academic study."

So, how can it be that at a time of cuts, with some museums reducing their opening hours, and some closing all together, participation is up?

One explanation is surely that in spite of the cuts a great many museums continue to get better. Lottery-funded refurbishments continue to open and the reputation of museums continues to rise.

Another explanation may be that at a time of crisis, with a shrinking economy and growing concern about the future, people do genuinely appreciate museums more. They like the sense of place and community, the sense of continuity that museums bring. That isn’t about tacky nostalgia – it’s about helping give people and communities a genuine sense of rootedness.

A further factor boosting museum visiting might be that at a time when many people’s incomes are shrinking, museums provide a relatively cheap day out.

Will the upwards trend continue? I’m not convinced. There are two main reasons for this. First the figures cover the period to June 2012, so don’t include the impact of the Olympics, which seem to have badly hit attendance at a great many museums, not only in London. Nor do they reflect the full impact of the dreadful summer weather, which hit visits to many open air and rural museums (although may have boosted visits to city centre museums).

But worse than that, As the MA cuts survey showed many museums are facing reduced budgets and losing expert staff, with more cuts likely in many places. I fear that the impact of the cuts are not yet being fully reflected in what visitors see. In a year or two the cracks may begin to show and there’s a risk quality will reduce.

And even if museums find a way to cope with fewer staff, the impact on many members of our profession has been grim. It’s always been hard to build a career in museums and this week’s Careers Q&A on the MA website suggests it may now be harder than ever.


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27.09.2012, 01:05
I haven't looked at the data but wondered if it relates only to free museums in England? What are the results for charitable trusts that have to charge? My museum hasn't filled in any visitor survey this year as figures have been so awful. Is there an overview on this? Do we have figures for Scotland? Not been great for places that charge (anecdotally)