Health check

Alistair Brown, 05.04.2017
Taking the pulse of the museum sector
Are museums in the UK in good shape? If you’re keeping an eye out for museum stories you’ll hear a lot about exciting new openings and exhibitions, and almost as much about the museums cuts and closures. It can be hard to get a clear picture of how museums are actually doing.

Our annual museums survey is a kind of annual health check for the UK museums sector as a whole. It’s a huge survey that we carry out jointly with the Museum Development Network to find out how museum funding and workforce is changing, what is happening to visitor numbers, what activities museums are focusing on, and what plans museums have for the future.

This year’s survey had over 450 responses from UK museums, ranging from small volunteer-run museums up to the largest national institutions. The results, published this week in our Museums in the UK report, reveal a sector whose health requires some serious attention.

The good news is that museums are performing well in terms of some traditional indicators, such as visitor numbers. 72% of museums report either stable or increasing visitor numbers, which confirms government statistics showing that museum-going is still hugely popular with the public.

Museums are also working hard to maintain their public offer, with 90% of all museums maintaining or increasing their temporary exhibitions and public events in the past year.

But our survey also shows that many publicly-funded museums are putting a brave face on a long-deteriorating financial position.

Government figures show that local authority spending on museums and galleries in England has declined by 31% in real terms since 2010, with similar decreases in the devolved nations. 64 museums have closed in the same period, mostly due to public funding cuts.

And while most museums haven’t had to contemplate closure, the cuts have nevertheless resulted in substantial difficulties.

Our survey shows that over half of national and independent former local authority museums reported a year-on-year decrease in staff numbers, which is reflected in the widespread concerns about loss of expertise, and low morale and stress among remaining staff. In some cases, museums are relying ever more on the goodwill of volunteers to maintain their services.

The survey does turn up some positive funding news, with the majority of museums reporting improved income from fundraising and earned income compared with the previous year – but most museums recognise that there is a limit to this growth, and a tension between generating income and providing a high quality public service that is accessible for all.

So what does the future hold?

We’ve published the survey in the run-up to the DCMS Museums Review in England, and the Museums Strategy in Wales. These major government policies are set to make recommendations on what the government, sector bodies and museums themselves can do to ensure that the sector thrives in the future.

These reviews are a real opportunity for us all to restate the public value of museums and the service that they provide – but the lesson from our survey is that they will achieve little if they avoid tackling the key issue of funding.