Doing more with less?

Maurice Davies, 30.09.2013
Why are visiting numbers rising as the cuts bite?
Two major, data-rich surveys have just reported: the Museums Association’s 2013 look at the sector  and the latest Taking Part report from DCMS.

The MA’s survey shows half of responding museums experienced a fall in income in the past year, with 37% cutting staff and 28% reducing the number of free events. And these cuts are on top of cuts in previous years.

But, Taking Part shows the highest ever level of museum visiting in the past year - 53% of adults living in England visited a museum.

This means that the money received and spent by museums is declining, yet the number of people visiting is soaring. That’s unexpected and I’m struggling to explain it.

Could it be because many museums are free and in hard times people gravitate towards free attractions? That doesn’t seem likely - the detailed Taking Part data doesn’t show a large increase among poorer people visiting museums.

Or perhaps there’s an element of “visit while you can” – do people fear that museums might close, and so are visiting before they do?

But I think the most likely answer is the good news that museums are getting better at doing what interests people and letting them know about it.

There are examples all over the place from increasingly well promoted exhibitions at nationals, to local museums being better connected to other local organisations, understanding their audiences better and making better use of social media.

So, perhaps museums really are achieving more with less.

Or at least more for some people.

Levels of participation vary a little by English region, from a low of 46% in the West Midlands to a high of 58% in London. There’s no significant difference between urban and rural dwellers, nor between men and women.

The biggest difference in museum visiting relates to how rich people are. Just under 40% of people in lower socio-economic groups visited in the past year, compared to over 60% of higher socio-economic groups.

There is a view that cuts mean museums will gradually decline and will in future be less appealing to people. But there’s no sign of that decline yet. And 40% of respondents to the MA survey said they thought their museum’s quality of service would increase over the next 12 months – even if in many cases that means doing fewer things.

So museums aren’t exactly doing more with less – but they seem to be brilliant at attracting more people with less.


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Ruth Kerr
MA Member
Community Engagement & Learning Officer, Hampshire Arts & Museums Service
30.10.2013, 15:53
Given the period Taking Part covers (i.e. when the 2012 Olympics were on), is it too easy to say people who were following the Olympic activity last year may also have been engaging with Olympic-related exhibitions and activity in museums?
Pamela Robertson
MA Member
Learning Officer, National Museums Scotland
30.10.2013, 08:21
Can we really measure the success of museums purely by numbers through the door? Your figures themselves clearly demonstrate the inequality that already exist in visitor profile. What about the idea of 'museums without walls'? How many more people outside the museums are enjoying the collections 'as the cuts bite' ? I am doubtful that the cuts some museums services are experiencing will not translate into an ever growing divide between socio - economic groups.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
23.10.2013, 14:39
The impacts of funding cuts will vary, depending on all sorts of factors (geography, the socio-economic context, the liveliness of a museum, type of collection, the strength of a museum's appeal to people on lower incomes etc etc). Visitor numbers are down about 20% in Liverpool this year. Let's see what the long term impacts of spending less are before getting too excited at our ability to attract more people by spending less money - a counter-intuitive credo if ever I saw one.