Museum directors criticise “London-centric” reporting of visitor figures - Museums Association

Museum directors criticise “London-centric” reporting of visitor figures

Footfall down at some London nationals but on the rise elsewhere in the UK
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Several museum directors have hit back at “London-centric” media reports suggesting that museum visitor numbers are on a general downward trend.

A segment on BBC Newsnight last week looked at the “different factors contributing to the decline in museum visitor numbers”, while a report in the Times described how museum and gallery chiefs had held “crisis talks on the mystery of missing visitors”.

The reports examined the reasons that several of London’s large national museums and galleries have reported significant falls in visitors in the past two years, with the city’s top seven institutions seeing their attendance figures falling from a high of 26m in 2014 to 24.7m last year.

But Nick Merriman, the chief executive of the Horniman Museum in London criticised the framing of the Newsnight segment, tweeting: “The statistic is based on national museums which are not representative of all, by any means. Many regional museums and other London museums are seeing significant increases.”

The Horniman Museum has seen its attendance figures grow by more than 100,000 between 2013-14 and 2017-18, from just under 700,000 to 813,195.

Tony Butler, the director of Derby Museums Trust, told Museums Journal that this success was mirrored by many regional museums. “The piece on Newsnight was very London-centric,” he said. “No-one bothered to ask the regions how they’re doing.

“There’s been an upward trend here since 2013, and I think that appears to be matched by other regional museums.”

Derby Museums Trust has seen visitor figures at its three sites more than double since 2013-14, rising from just under 80,000 to more than 170,000 in 2017-18.  

“There are initiatives happening in the regions that are resulting in more visitors,” said Butler. “Museums are putting on better stuff, more people are staycationing, or they might be staying local instead of travelling down to London.”

Butler pointed out that, unlike those of the museums sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the figures from civic museums are not collated and published in one place, which may result in a misleading picture in media reports.

“If you’re looking to a narrative that museums are not relevant and people don’t value them, then that’s not the case. People are interested in regional museums – at a time of austerity, they see free museums as a good day out.”  

According to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, overall visits to UK attractions rose 7.3% in 2017, with museums in Scotland, Northern Ireland and English cities such as Oxford and Birmingham all reporting significant increases.

Meanwhile, National Museums Wales saw a 17% increase in attendance to its seven sites between 2016-17 and last year, from 1.3 million to 1.5 million visitors.

However, so far this year the downward trend appears to be continuing among some of London’s national museums, in spite of an increase in overall tourist numbers.

Figures released last week by the DCMS show that the British Museum welcomed 1.45 million people through its doors between April and June this year, 12% down on the 1.65 million who visited during the same period last year.

Elsewhere, the National Portrait Gallery has not yet seen attendance bounce back after a 35% drop last year. The gallery welcomed 197,000 visitors between April and June this year, compared to 272,252 for the same three months in 2017-18 – a further decline of 27.6%.

Guy Turton, a researcher from Morris Hargreaves MacIntrye, a company that analyses museum visitor trends, told Newsnight that there appeared to be a number of reasons for the decline in London.

Turton said that some museums were simply “regressing to the norm” after a post-Olympic spike in visits, and also pointed to travel disruption and terrorism fears.
The downward trend appears to be affecting free visits rather than fee-charging exhibitions, which are continuing to do “exceptionally well”, said Turton. The trend also seems to relate to primarily homegrown visitors, with Londoners accounting for around 70% of the total decline in 2016-17, according to the Times.

The newspaper also reported that the National Portrait Gallery’s former chairman William Proby had arranged a “crisis meeting” last year with the heads of eight other London museums and galleries to discuss falling visitor numbers.

Heads of marketing for national museums also discussed the matter at a recent meeting held by the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC).
Updated to include further detail from NMDC.

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