British museums and art galleries hit by 1.4m fall in visitors

Fewer school trips, security fears and a lack of blockbuster exhibitions blamed for decline at UK’s major attractions

The number of visitors to the UK’s major museums and galleries fell by nearly 1.4 million last year, the first decline in almost a decade.

A report by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport found that 47.6 million people visited the institutions it sponsors, such as Tate Modern, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, between April 2015 and April 2016.

This was down from a figure of 49 million who visited the same museums [see footnote] in the previous 12-month period.

One of the most significant declines was in the number of young people visiting these museums for educational purposes, which dropped by over 6% from the previous year.

The Museums Association blamed security fears over terrorism, and a possible lack of blockbuster exhibitions on the scale of the V&A’s David Bowie show, for the drop in numbers.

Tate galleries, which includes Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, saw the greatest fall, from 7.9 million to 6.7 million. It meant the British Museum once again became the most popular institution, drawing in 6.9 million visitors in 2016.

Tate said that in 2014 Tate Modern hosted its most popular ever exhibition, Matisse Cutouts, which drew in over half a million people. However, 2016 was also a successful year for Tate Modern, with its long-awaited extension, Switch House, drawing in a record-breaking 143,000 visitors on its opening weekend in June.

The Museums Association said it was disappointing that the greatest decline in visitor numbers came from educational visits and school groups. There was a 6.9% drop in children under 18 being taken on school trips and participating in workshops and educational activities in the galleries and museums.

Visitor figures

Those under 18 still in formal education also visited galleries and museums less in 2016, with an overall decline of 3.1%. The drop could be attributable to a national education system which was recently found to be “systematically” removing arts and culture from the curriculum. The 2015 Warwick Commission found that the number of arts teachers in school had dropped by 11% since 2010, and that there was a 25% drop in those taking art and other craft-related subjects for GCSE.

Similarly art history had been dropped from the A-Level curriculum, although the government was forced to backtrack on this.

Alistair Brown, a spokesperson for the Museums Association, said: “These figures are clearly disappointing. As schools come under greater pressure, they are finding it harder to devote time to out-of-class activities such as museum visits. Children are increasingly missing out on valuable experiences that bring history, science and culture to life and expose them to new ideas.

“Last week, the government welcomed the Imagine Nation report that demonstrated the value of cultural learning, but these figures show that they need to do more to help schools and museums work together.”

For the National Gallery, the drop in numbers during 2015 was mainly due to being hit by staff strikes over the privatisation of services. The gallery said: “During 2015 the National Gallery was affected by over 100 days of strike action, and this resulted in the cancellation of many school visits and education-related programmes. This had an inevitable impact on our visitor numbers from both schools and general gallery visitation that year.”

Overseas visitors continued to make up almost half of the UK’s museum-going crowds. Over 47% of those who visited the government-sponsored institutions were tourists. The museum with the highest proportion of foreign tourists was the Royal Armouries museum, making up 67.5% of all visitors.

A DCMS spokesperson said:“Our world-class museums and galleries continue to attract huge numbers of people from across the country, including almost 8 million children last year alone. We are completely committed to encouraging children of all ages and from all backgrounds to enjoy and learn from visiting museums and galleries.”

The UK’s museums are not the only ones to be hit with falling visitor numbers, in part because of terrorism fears. The Louvre recently reported that it had 7.3 million visitors in 2016, a considerable decline from the 9.3 million visitors it had boasted two years before. This included a decline of 31% of visitors from China, 61% from Japan and 18% from the US.

• This article was amended on 3 February 2017. An earlier version put the decline in attendances at more than 2m, comparing a 2014/15 record figure for attendances at DCMS-sponsored museums with the 2015/16 figure. However, the 2014/15 figure included attendances at Tyne and Wear Museums, while the 2015/16 figure did not as they are no longer DCMS-sponsored. The article now compares like-for-like figures.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dreamers and disrupters: the best art and architecture of autumn 2018
Old and new masters reveal their radical edge, Assemble unveil their Goldsmiths galleries, Fernand Léger seeks utopia, and photography focuses on the facts

Jonathan Jones, Sean O'Hagan , Adrian Searle and Oliver Wainwright

27, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Visits to world's top 100 museums and galleries fall 77% due to Covid
Institutions across globe could take years to recover from disastrous 2020, suggests survey

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Dalí, Duchamp, Basquiat and beards: the best art of autumn 2017
Modigliani seduces, the Turner hits Hull, Rebecca Warren shakes up St Ives – and Gilbert and George have a close shave with facial hair – we pick the season’s most eye-popping art exhibitions

Jonathan Jones

18, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on access to art: drifting away | Editorial
Editorial: As redundancies loom and opportunities for cultural experiences narrow, the arts risk regressing into a pastime for the elite


14, Aug, 2020 @5:25 PM

Article image
Three London museums totalled more visitors than Venice in 2015
Weakness of the pound and capital’s popularity helped attract record 124.4 million visitors to UK’s top attractions

Rebecca Smithers

07, Mar, 2016 @12:01 AM

Article image
FT editor appointed new chair of Tate galleries
Critics say appointment of Lionel Barber to prestigious arts role is potential conflict of interest

Maev Kennedy

29, Mar, 2018 @3:43 PM

Article image
Tate galleries to make half of commercial workforce redundant
313 jobs to go in publishing and shops, cafes and restaurants in London, Liverpool and St Ives

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

12, Aug, 2020 @12:19 PM

Article image
Tate welcomes Maria Balshaw – a leader of charm, guts and skill
Only the brave would attempt to follow the towering Nicholas Serota, but Tate’s new director-elect – currently head of Manchester’s Whitworth – is a formidable cultural champion

Charlotte Higgins

11, Jan, 2017 @3:06 PM

Article image
Maria Balshaw: the Tate's new director-elect
The 47-year-old was director of Manchester City Galleries and was awarded a CBE in 2015

Nadia Khomami

11, Jan, 2017 @5:50 PM

Article image
Six candidates who could be up for the top job at Tate galleries
As Sir Nicholas Serota announces his departure, who will take over at one of the world’s most respected arts organisations?

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

08, Sep, 2016 @7:10 PM