Museum visiting during an economic crisis (or Crisis? What crisis?)

9 December 2013

What effect has five years of economic turbulence had upon museum visits? That was the question posed to delegates at the last European Group on Museum Statistics in Paris on 18-19 November where I was resurrecting an old role as the networks UK representative.

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Arriving armed with the latest collection of UK statistics on museums and galleries that I could find, the conference produced some surprises.

Like the UK, in many countries funding environment for culture since 2008 has been difficult with tales of reduced opening hours and slimmed down events and exhibitions. The assumption was that this would have had a knock-on effect on the number of visits to museums and that this would have meant further bad news for the sector.

Looking through publicly available data on the number of visits to museums in England (sorry Scotland, Wales &Northern Ireland) I identified 288 sites where data was available from 2008-2012.

I found that in 2008 these sites received 52.4m visits and in 2012 ... 59.4m visits! An increase of 7m or 13% over the period. Thirteen may be unlucky for some, but not, on the face of it, for England's museums. Delegates from France also reported increases as did Belarus, Estonia, the Netherlands and Poland. Only the Czech Republic reported a definite decrease and they had somehow managed to offset this by a real terms increase in total income.

We pondered. Was Europe becoming more cultured? Were Europeans flocking to the comforting embrace of museums in these difficult times? A fire alert forced an impromptu evacuation from the meeting. Undaunted, we reconvened around the corner.

Well, what we agreed on was that the picture is complex and national 'overview' data doesn't show this complexity. Perhaps increases in national visit numbers were being driven by a few large sites?

Further investigation into where the growth in visit numbers was or wasn't occurring would show whether this was happening across all or just part of the sector. On top of this, we also recognised the need for social research to find out what was driving people's decision about visiting or not.

While we don't currently have answers, we do at least know more about what sort of questions we need to be asking visitors to get them.

Established in 2002, EGMUS (to use its snappier acronym) aims to collect and compile available statistical data on museums in Europe and promote the harmonisation of museum statistics. At present 27 European countries, from within and outside the European Union, are represented in the group. To find out more, visit their website here