Tate Modern overtakes British Museum as UK's most visited attraction

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 27.03.2019
Visitor numbers up almost 9% in UK overall and 19% in Scotland
Visitor figures to UK attractions rose by 8.7% last year, according to the latest figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva). The rise was bigger than expected as it coincided with a 4% fall in overseas visitors to the UK. 

In London, the Tate Modern became the UK’s most visited attraction, knocking the British Museum off the top spot for the first time in 11 years.

The London gallery attracted 5.87 million visitors in 2018, a rise on 3.7% on the previous year. The gallery attributed this success to its 2016 Switch House extension, which continues to be a significant draw for visitors, as well as recent blockbuster exhibitions on Picasso and Modigliani.

The British Museum reported a slight fall of 1.3% in footfall, attracting 5.83 million visitors. The National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum reported falls of 6.6% and 2.4% respectively, while footfall to Royal Museums Greenwich dropped by 2%.

However, visits to many other London institutions bounced back in 2018 after dramatic falls in previous years, which were attributed to terrorism concerns and transport issues.

The National Gallery reported a 9.7% rise, while the Natural History Museum welcomed 18% more visitors last year after conducting a targeted family marketing campaign. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which was one of the few London nationals to buck the downward trend in 2017, continued its success last year with a further 5% rise in footfall.

The reopening of the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank proved a huge draw for visitors, with the Southbank Centre reporting a 31.7% rise, moving it from 7th to 5th place on the list. 

The most popular venue on the list outside London was the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which held its 11th place spot for the second year running and reported a 3% rise in visitors. This success was echoed across Scotland, where overall visits to attractions rose by 19%. Edinburgh Castle was the most popular paid attraction, reporting a 2% rise last year, while the Scottish National Gallery saw a 9% increase.

National Trust for Scotland sites had a particularly good year, making up four of the top seven sites with the most growth across the UK. The introduction of a children's playpark at Newhailes in East Lothian saw its numbers rise by an astonishing 1168.7%, while the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway recorded a 62% increase. 

Visitors to some of Glasgow's museums dipped, however, with numbers falling 9.7% at Riverside Museum and 19.13% at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery - a return to normal after its record-breaking numbers the previous year. Glasgow Museum Resource Centre fared better with a 13% rise. 

Elsewhere, National Museums Liverpool (NML) celebrated a successful year. There was an increase of 111% in footfall to the World Museum, which moved up 30 places and was the most visited museum in England outside of London as a result of its blockbuster terracotta warriors exhibition. The Museum of Liverpool saw its numbers rise 31%, driven by its Double Fantasy: John and Yoko exhibition. 

NML director Laura Pye said: “The museums and galleries of NML are bursting with brilliant objects, incredible stories and memorable moments, and in 2018 we were able to take it to another level with a really vibrant programme, including some exceptional exhibitions."

The "Dippy effect" was in evidence, with venues that have hosted the Natural History Museum's famous diplodocus skeleton continuing to report significant rises. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery saw a 38% rise, while Belfast's Ulster Museum welcomed 10% more visitors. 

The armistice centenary resulted in a significant increase in footfall to military history sites. Visitor numbers rose by 36% at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and the recently reopened RAF Museum in north London saw its figures rise by 45%. 

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Oxford recorded a 26% increase in visitors.

The weather extremes of 2018 affected some outdoor sites however, with several reporting falls, including Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. 

Alva's director, Bernard Donoghue, said: "Attractions across the UK have shown that by investing in their buildings, gardens and staff, presenting globally significant exhibitions, and working together to bring iconic artefacts – whether poppies or dinosaurs – to more people, has been hugely successful."

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales sites are not included in Alva's report. 

Correction
02.04.2019

The article originally gave Tate Modern's figures as 5.69 million. This has been corrected.


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