Are museums super-serving the well-educated and well-off, and failing those who most need educational support? If you look at the Taking Part survey data on the demographic of museum visitors in England over the past 15 years, it is hard to avoid that conclusion.
I have been asked to write a chapter on museum access for a Bloomsbury Handbook on arts and music, and I’m hoping that Museums Association members can help me find examples of museums and communities, where the progress is better than the national statistics suggest.
The number of museums in Britain has trebled since 1960, and audience growth has more than kept pace. In the same period, the ways museums engage with the public have been revolutionised.
According to the Taking Part survey the gap between upper and lower socio-economic groups has remained stable at around 24 percentage points. If there has been a decrease – or an increase – in the gap, it is smaller than the margin of error. What evidence there is from before 2005 shows the same picture.
Temporary exhibitions and long-term displays are informed by learning theories, visitor studies and design for communication, and marketed professionally. The number of professionals dedicated to formal and informal education, outreach and community engagement has increased, and their work enhanced by research on its impacts. There are more accessible museums than ever before.
But despite these transformations there are still striking inequalities in museum visiting.
The category of "socio-economic group" is unhelpful, as it merges two distinct factors that predict the likelihood of people visiting museums – income and education. It has been taken as an established fact by cultural economists for more than 25 years that the most significant vector of inequality in cultural participation is not poverty – or ethnicity – but level of education (though of course these factors interact in a compounding way).
Unfortunately, Taking Part does not publish data on education separately. The Scottish equivalent survey shows that the 20% best-off people are about twice as likely to visit a museum as the 20% worst off. However, those with a degree or professional qualification are 4.6 times more likely to visit than those with no qualifications (adjusted according to the percentage of these groups in the population).
The disparity in the figures for art galleries is even more stark. Overall, level of education is about twice as significant as income in predicting museum visits.
What about the impact of school visits, which may engage many children from lower socioeconomic groups? A 2009 study by the University of Leicester found that schools from deprived areas did visit museums, and there is plenty of research showing that, conducted properly, students can learn on these outings. It doesn’t seem, however, that they learn to become museum visitors later in life.
All of this would seem to imply that museums are, in general, mirroring overall societal change: increased levels of education, matched by improvements in museums, are leading to more museum visits.
But museums, in general, are not reaching people who do not do well in school, and not reducing inequalities. Some museums do not see it as their role to compensate for the failures of state schooling even if they were (like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and most local authority museums) set up to "educate the masses".
Learning and engagement staff in this kind of museum often feel compromised, doing work that they know benefits some schools and community groups, but which also masks institutional indifference. Other museums – such as National Museums Liverpool - are entirely dedicated to reducing inequalities in access. What’s not clear is whether they are achieving results that do not show up in Taking Part data.
Only evidence from those which attract more representative audiences will enable us to understand what really makes a difference at a population level. Suggestions for case studies greatly welcomed.
Mark O'Neill can be contacted at email@example.com