Reopening after lockdown was a leap into the dark for any public-facing attraction. There was no handbook on the best approach, and no data to predict how visitors might feel about coming back or how they would behave when they did return.
More than two years into the pandemic, the picture is becoming a little clearer – and while there are positives, it’s apparent that times remain tough for many museums and galleries. Although most institutions had a happy experience of welcoming the public back, the figures show that visitors on the whole have been slow to return.
In March, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva) released its visitor figures survey for 2021 – the first full year of the pandemic (see box). The results are not altogether surprising: primarily outdoor attractions have dominated the rankings, with Windsor Great Park topping the list, followed by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and Chester Zoo. With museums and galleries closed for the entire first quarter of the year, only four primarily indoor attractions made it into the top 10: the Natural History Museum, British Museum, Tate Modern and Science Museum, in London.
Tate Modern attracted 6.098m visitors in 2019, and was second only to the British Museum, which achieved 6.239m visits. Tate Modern fell to seventh place in 2021, with 1.156m visitors, which was a fall from 2020. The British Museum reported a small increase on its 2020 figures, from 1.275m to 1.327m, but fell from third to sixth place. The Natural History Museum managed to grow its visitor figures by 21% in 2021, the biggest rise among the four, bringing it to fourth place on the list.
Visitors are prioritising outdoor experiences – and not just for safety reasons, says Alva chief executive Bernard Donoghue. After two years of confinement and trauma, the public’s priorities have shifted towards their health and wellbeing.
“People want to reconnect with nature, to repair themselves, to breathe and heal,” says Donoghue. “That was significant last year and I think it will continue.
“There’s a real spectrum of recovery. Outdoor spaces are thriving, but indoor museums, especially ones dependent on overseas visitors, are still in survival mode. It’s the tourism equivalent of long Covid.”
In between lockdowns, institutions pivoted to the captive domestic audience and achieved some success in drawing in new visitors from their local areas. Loyalty among already-committed visitors also remained high, with retention rates to museum membership schemes staying above 80% during Covid restrictions, even when most of the benefits couldn’t be used.
“It’s a good sign that when people’s favourite places were taken away, they realised how much they missed them,” says Donoghue. “They didn’t just have a membership for transactional reasons.”
But these successes were not enough to fill the gap left by other missing audiences. The drop in footfall among the bigger nationals can largely be explained by the almost complete loss of overseas tourists at the height of the pandemic. The overseas tourist market is not expected to recover to pre-Covid levels until 2024-25.
Institutions with primarily local audiences are also struggling, with many finding that footfall has remained stubbornly at about 40%-50% of their pre-pandemic figures, despite most restrictions being eased. It is thought that measures introduced to control crowds, such as prebooked tickets, have been a barrier to drop-in visits. Footfall in town centres continues to be quieter during the week due to home-working, a situation that is likely to continue as many employers move permanently to hybrid working models.
Cultural institutions are forecasting an uncertain summer. Although the early signs are good, with strong bookings over the February half-term and Easter, many domestic visitors are keen to travel abroad after the restrictions of the past two years. Combined with high inflation levels and the expected squeeze on disposable income, the year ahead is likely to be challenging for much of the sector. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Donoghue. “This year is going to be tough for domestic audiences.”
In some areas, institutions are working together to draw visitors back in. Newcastle and Gateshead Cultural Venues is a partnership of
10 organisations including Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam), the Life Science Centre, Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. With financing from Newcastle and Gateshead councils, and the European structural and investment funds, the partnership has launched a joint advertising campaign, Make Your Moment, aimed at reminding people of the memorable experiences that cultural venues can offer and encouraging them to create new “special moments”.
Out of the habit
Aside from restrictions and safety concerns, there is a sense that many people simply fell out of the habit of going to museums during the pandemic. “We feel that there are a lot of people who would like to return but needed a bit of a push,” says Keith Merrin, the director of Twam. “We’re reminding people of all the brilliant things they used to do before the pandemic.”
Launched to coincide with the run-up to Easter, the campaign targeted the city’s transport networks, showcasing the packed programme of exhibitions, events and activities on offer at the venues. The partnership is now working with tourism agencies to promote several milestones coming up this year in north-east England, including the 1900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall and the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels at the Laing Art Gallery.
One trend that some venues have noticed is that although people will flock to particular activities, spontaneous visits remain low. “If we run a specific event, people will come to it, but the general visitor is not popping in,” says Merrin.
Ever since reopening, many cultural institutions have also remarked on the fact that, while footfall is down, retail spend and donations per head have risen significantly.
“It’s a definite phenomenon but nobody is quite sure why,” says Merrin. “We don’t know if visitors will continue to spend more or if it is a short-term boost.”
There is a strong feeling across the sector that more support from the UK central government is needed to support institutions through this period of uncertainty. The £2bn Cultural Recovery Fund – the largest single emergency package for any UK sector – has been a lifeline but sector bodies are campaigning for further rounds of rescue funding.
“It’s needed now as much as ever,” says Merrin. “We got the full cost of being open, but only 50% of our visitors.”
But the pandemic has also afforded cultural venues a moment to pause and analyse how they can shape up for the future – and there’s an appetite for change in the air.
“Everyone is asking themselves the same questions,” says Donoghue. “What did we do pre-Covid that was risk averse? What have we done about risk-taking that we should keep? Who comes, who doesn’t and why don’t they?
“My sense is that people have learned to be more confident, more provocative and more disruptive – it’s a watershed moment.”