The numbers game

Alistair Brown, 21.08.2018
We need visitor data that recognises the achievements of non-national museums
When new figures were published last week showing that several of the London-based national museums have seen falls in visitor numbers, there was a predictable flurry of coverage by the media. Major newspapers gave us panicky headlines such as Museums chiefs hold crisis talks on mystery of missing visitors.

Such stories are always a source of frustration for the sector. National museums are blamed for poor performance, despite the external factors behind the falls in visitor numbers, and the fact that from a historical perspective visitor numbers remain very high indeed.

But more problematic is the way in which all museums are tarred with the same brush. Our London-centric media seems barely aware that there is a whole world of museums beyond Zone 1, let alone interested in the fact that many are doing a roaring trade.

You only have to look at the success of places like the Black Country Living Museum or Derby Museums, which have both seen strong year-on-year growth consistently for the last five years, to see that what goes for London doesn’t necessarily go for the rest of the country.

A recent Visit England report seemed to confirm this, showing that visitor attractions of all kinds reported increasing visitor numbers in six of England’s nine regions in the past year. 

So regional museums across the UK are undoubtedly getting a raw deal from the media, with its obsessive focus on London’s national museums. But we shouldn’t lay the fault entirely at their door.

Journalists can only work with the statistics they’re given – and at present the official statistics in England report only on the small number of national institutions sponsored directly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 

Amazingly, almost no other data is published that collates the visitor numbers of other museums across England or the rest of the UK. When carrying out the Mendoza Review last year, DCMS civil servants were shocked to find out how little data they had to work with.

It’s all the more surprising given that much of the information is already available. Arts Council England already collects a huge amount of information via the Accreditation scheme and its National Portfolio Organisation partners. The same goes for information held by Museums Galleries Scotland and the governments in Scotland and Wales. The information is on file but never used.

Meanwhile separate surveys such as the Visit England Visitor Attraction Trends in England report collect and publish useful data, but take a more general view of all visitor attractions. Perhaps a partnership between the tourism and culture bodies could resolve the issue.

What is certain is that for the moment we are failing to measure what matters. Visitor numbers are the most publicly-recognised health indicator for our museums.

An annual report that shows the vitality of the museums sector as a whole would be a valuable advocacy tool, a useful benchmark and an opportunity for museums outside of the nationals to have their achievements recognised properly. But unless sector bodies grasp this opportunity, non-nationals will be confined to forever complaining from the sidelines.