Is it time for national museums to take a hyper-local approach?

As new lockdown restrictions loom, we need to shift our focus to the visitors on our doorstep
Covid-19 Visitors
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Katherine McAlpine
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Following the prime minister’s still-distressing-yet-totally-unsurprising announcement Tuesday evening of further restrictions, staring down the prospect of a second-lockdown-but-not-quite, I’m trying to stay sane by reflecting on what I actually enjoyed about lockdown the first time around. Getting to know our neighbours a bit better, clapping for the NHS, rediscovering my local area.

Not being able to leave my home meant I really savoured the moments when I did. Pacing the same one-mile radius from my flat forced me to take notice of the spaces I’d taken for granted before, rushing from one place to another.

Rather than dull, I found it liberating. I’d never realised how much wildlife there was right on my doorstep, what different colours the flowers made. I discovered a handful of English Heritage blue plaques within a short walk of my home, and starved of my usual diet of history and heritage, I read each of them carefully and went home and did even more research.

The same day as the PM’s announcement, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published a report on visitor trends among national museums. Commissioned before the pandemic, the report seemed obsolete almost as soon as it was published. Yet post-Covid, it still has some important lessons for national museums if they’re keen to take them.

The report charts a decline in European visitors, unsurprisingly citing that they feel less welcome since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Pre-Covid, this shortfall might have been made up by visits from US and China, but it is unlikely that overseas visits of any kind are going to get back up to their pre-pandemic levels for a long time.

So what does the report tell us about the attitudes of Londoners to museum visits? Before the pandemic, cost was the largest factor negatively impacting visits, with exhibition price and wraparound spend such as travel also cited as too expensive for many. This is also likely to get worse before it gets better as we continue to feel the economic impact of the pandemic, but national museums are also an amazing free day out.

The report cites that, as most museums spend their advertising budget promoting paid exhibitions, this message is often lost, but the one museum that did emphasise its free collection saw a 25% increase in visits following that campaign. Current trends away from public transport and towards cheaper, and more sustainable, travel methods may in fact work in museums’ favour – if they are happy to target those within a 30-minute cycling or walking radius.

In addition to this, the busyness of central London was until now the most prevalent social barrier. Post-Covid, the lack of crowds has been cited as a reason to visit, and many campaigns are focusing on ‘now is the time to visit’ busy central London attractions.

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Staycation has been the buzzword of the summer, with many people getting to know the amazing heritage on offer across the country for the first time. But as we look at perhaps being restricted even further and cautioned against all but essential travel, it may be time for museums to show visitors what is waiting to be discovered on their doorstep.

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