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Making Up the Numbers

26 January 2012

While in recent years, other culture and tourism sectors have noted a decline in popularity, visitor numbers at museums and galleries continues to go from strength to strength. Andy Greeves explores the reasons why people are still flocking to our showpiece mainstays.

The latest figures revealed by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) are testament to the popularity of the UK’s museums and galleries. Of the organisation’s top 10 visited attractions in 2010, eight of them were museums and galleries. The likes of the British Museum, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, V&A and National Maritime Museum all saw significant rises in visitor numbers on the previous 12 months.
 
The logic is that museums play a role in attracting tourists and building the British brand. In 2008-2009, 14million visits to museums and galleries were made by visitors to the UK. While that overseas trade is vital, the domestic statistics rank impressively too, with nearly a half of all British adults having visited a museum or gallery in the UK in the last 12 months (ref: DCMS).
 
So what is the key to the success of these art and culture hubs? And how is it that, over the course of the past 10 years, visits have more than doubled?
 
A turning point undoubtedly came in December 2001, when universal free access to national museums throughout the UK was introduced (although the British Museum had been letting people in for gratis since 1753). The British Museum’s Director, Neil MacGregor, recently told The Times: “It’s the rhetoric of free admission since 2001 that has had the impact, as much as the fact.”
 
So if awareness is as vital as the product, then the internet has undoubtedly played its part in boosting numbers. But such a resource only really backs up the reality that the success of our museums and galleries takes far more than simply opening the doors to all. It is engagement with its audience; strong, purposeful marketing, and the reinventing and redisplaying of content ideas and special events.

Late at the Tate
was launched at Tate Britain shortly after the Tate Modern opened in 2000. The gallery identified the loss of many of its younger visitors to the new attraction on the South Bank and introduced the scheme as a way of bringing young people, the local community and local businesses to the gallery. On the first Friday of every month, invitations were sent to these audiences to come to Tate Britain after 6pm, with access to displays supplemented with a bar, live music and half price tickets for paid-for exhibitions.
 
Such was the success of the event - which still runs on the first Friday of every month - that a regular visitor base of 3,000 was built for this one evening, 80% of whom who were, at first, new visitors to Tate Britain.
 
Moving on, and from a rather more purist perspective, The Times’ Hugo Rifkind also believes that “people are flocking to museums because... they are the best public spaces we have.”
 
There is a definite sense that museums and galleries have prised away this role as a public space from places like Town Halls, churches and even coffee shops. Sitting under the glass at the British Museum’s Great Hall or looking out over the Thames from the Southbank Centre is as likely a spot for a lunch meeting in London as one of the many parks.
 
But most crucially, people are coming to galleries and museums because curators are putting on exhibitions and events that visitors want to see and be a part of. The first Long Weekend at the Tate Modern in 2006 (themed activities across the May Bank Holiday targeting Londoners aged 16-24) saw 36% of visitors pass through the gallery’s Turbine Hall for the first time. And 49% of those said they would not have visited but for the free event (source: Eva 2006). In addition, 59% of attendees to the National Gallery’s Raphael exhibition in 2004, including 40,000 overseas, said they had travelled to London specifically to see the display.
 
Even outside of London, record-breaking numbers in excess of 300,000 thronged to the Bristol Museum in less than a month for its 2009 Banksy exhibition.
 
And most importantly, 97% of visitors to hub museums said they were either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their visit (source: DCMS 2009).
 
There is no doubt that a sense of excitement is emanating from artistic establishments in the UK right now. Engagement and interaction are buzzwords, and there is a new chic associated with our traditional stables that simply wasn’t present two decades ago. The love affair with our museums and galleries is set to continue.
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