Pain continues for the museum sector with visitor numbers down 80%

Egyptian Gallery at the British Museum

Egyptian Gallery at the British Museum

The most recent figures released from the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) on ten major museums and galleries show an 80% drop in footfall. For the period of 21st to 27th September 2020, visits were at 19.2% of the daily average in September over the three previous years.

The venues taking part in the survey were the National Gallery, National Museums Liverpool (five of eight sites are now open), the Wallace Collection, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum (with the exception of the HMS Belfast), the Science Museum Group (all sites are now open), the V&A (partial reopening), the Tate and the British Museum. These are 10 of the 15 DCMS-Sponsored museums and galleries. All but two of these 15 are based in London, though several, like the Tate and the Imperial War Museum, have major sites elsewhere in the country as well. Whilst some museums are not open for the entire week, the average has been adjusted for to take this into account.

The level of footfall reported reflects a number of factors. These include the restrictions on numbers necessary to allow for social distancing, the limited opening hours adopted by some museums, and the phased reopening of most of the venues. It’s possible that many potential visitors remain unaware of which museums have now re-opened. For instance, the British Museum reopened as recently as 27th August.

Another major factor in the loss of footfall is the importance of tourist visits. In 2018/19, overseas visitors represented 48% of total visits to DCMS-Sponsored museums. This is quite an astonishing figure, and perhaps the argument over whether taxpayers in Burnham-on-Sea or Scarborough should really be subsidising free entry to museums for foreign tourists to London is one for another day. Regardless, it seems that domestic tourists have not taken this opportunity to visit their cultural gems without the crowds. Much of this must surely be due to a reluctance to use public transport in cities, particularly the London tube, which any visitor to London remembers as being horribly crowded and poorly ventilated. Another problem must be that the full cultural offer of a few days in London is not available at the moment, with theatres and music venues closed.

As I write this on a Monday, I’ve done a random check of a few museums. Both the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum have booking slots available almost all day from today onwards, even including next weekend. The Natural History Museum is almost sold out for this weekend (and you don’t seem to be able to book further ahead than that for weekends), but has plentiful availability for the rest of the week. Of course, different museums may have different capacities as regards social distancing – but things still look pretty grim for city centre museums, and, with talk of a possible London lockdown, I can’t see things improving this year.

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