The latest figures on visits to National Museums and Galleries have just been released. If not exactly signalling a crisis, they are a cause for concern and reflection about where the sector is headed.
Visits to DCMS-sponsored museums and galleries have dropped by 3% for the seven months to October 2016. This continues a slide that began in 2015. What appears to be a relatively small ‘blip’ is however masked by the performance of one gallery: Tate Modern.
Following the launch of its £260m Switch House extension in June this year, Tate Modern’s visitor numbers surged by almost 70% compared to the same period in 2015. That is just over 1 million additional visits.
These additional visits attracted by Tate Modern compensated for roughly half the net fall experienced by all the other London-based Nationals combined. If we ignore the ephemeral impact of the Switch House launch, then the decline in visits to National Museums would have been more pronounced and alarming – from the 4% drop that was widely reported in the media to more than 10%.
The figures also mask a decline in domestic visits to some of the Nationals. Last year, Will Gompertz found that a marked fall in UK visits to the National Gallery and Tate Galleries was masked by a growth in overseas visits that was itself driven by London’s continuing popularity as a global tourist destination.
Set against the backdrop of Brexit and all its implications, these are not encouraging signs. The uncertainty created by Brexit has almost certainly affected voluntary income streams like donations and sponsorship, as well some of the important trading income streams like corporate hospitality and private hire. It was hoped that this would be offset by a ‘bounce’ in visitor-driven income like charging exhibitions, retail and catering. The weak pound was meant to attract more overseas tourists and encourage more UK residents to ‘staycation’ at home.
That that doesn’t seem to be happening is a cause for concern. It may be premature to panic, but this is undoubtedly a worrying trend that needs to be tracked and understood.
It is therefore timely that DCMS has embarked on its first major review of the museums sector in over 10 years. This will hopefully identify the challenges ahead and make sensible recommendations for addressing them. More importantly, this is a great opportunity for DCMS to start looking at the museums sector with a measure of dispassionate, data-driven objectivity. All the enduring debates about charging, diversity and the balance of funding between nationals and non-nationals, London and the regions, should be back on the table.
We should be grateful for Tate Modern’s stellar performance, which has tempered the effects of an otherwise massive drop in visits. But looking forward, we should take our cue and inspiration from Zaha Hadid’s new Maths Gallery at the Science Museum i.e. now is a time for detached analysis; for figures and fact. It is time to stop making policy decisions through the foggy politics and passions of a sector that is still far too siloed and inward looking.