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Are museums too preoccupied by visitor numbers?

23 April 2018

League tables of museum visitor numbers may generate a lot of media coverage – but do they distract institutions from other priorities?

Nicholas Penny
Former director of the National Gallery, London (2008–2015)

On becoming director of the National Gallery in 2008 I was disturbed to discover that attendance figures had become a prominent feature not only of the gallery’s annual review but also of the monthly reports to the trustees. Banishing them would have been rash. The reasons for doing so would have been misinterpreted. And, besides, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport found them to be convenient ‘performance indicators’.

Attendance figures take no account of exchange rates, weather conditions or terrorist alerts. They make no deductions for the protestors and celebrators in Trafalgar Square who enter the National Gallery to use its facilities, for teenagers attending rock concerts in the garden court of the V&A, and for the coachloads of tourists decanted into the British Museum while their hotel rooms in Bloomsbury are being prepared. It is, however, not the crudeness of attendance figures that is disturbing so much as the way in which they can distort the priorities of cultural institutions.

Even if attendance figures were not presented as a league table, comparisons between different institutions would be inevitable. Trustees and directors are gripped by the vivid and simplified drama of the contest. They find it difficult not to see their institution in a competition with the others, as if it were a football club. It becomes surprisingly hard to recognise that there should be nothing worrying about the number of visitors to a different institution edging ahead because, for example, it has mounted an exhibition of the work of David Hockney.

A gratifying development during my directorship was the introduction of thorough and reliable visitor surveys that should enable senior management to detect ways in which the public could be better served, for example by supplying affordable but good-quality food, by providing more toilets for women, by translating gallery guides into Mandarin, and by not expelling visitors 10 minutes before closing time.

Surveys are as good as the questions they ask, and perhaps too many of the questions that are currently being asked relate to the ‘success’ (meaning the popularity) of temporary exhibitions. We are told that the number of UK citizens visiting our galleries has increased, but the country’s population is also increasing – so one set of figures needs another if it is to mean much. If the number of visitors looking for the ‘iconic’ pictures increases, do other parts of the collection also receive more attention, or less? Above all, does increasing ‘foot-fall’ result in an extension of ‘dwell-time’? Is any section of the visiting public showing signs of looking for longer and with more care at an individual work of art? Given that a director cannot ignore attendance figures, he or she might at least insert them into a whole range of more important information that would encourage planning not just for tomorrow but for posterity.

Bernard Donoghue
Director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions

The sociologist William Bruce Cameron once observed that ‘not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’.

Every March the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA) publishes the annual, calendar-year visitor figures of our members. The media release of the table of more than 250 attractions in the UK always generates huge attention. This year every UK national newspaper covered the list, and for the fifth year running BBC Breakfast News covered the story with a live broadcast from one of our members; this year it was the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

It’s easy to dismiss the list of visitor numbers as a tourism equivalent of Top of the Pops – who’s in, who’s out, who’s up or down – but it can’t be denied that the table is eye-catching. We time the release to coincide with English Tourism Week, in order to draw attention to the importance of the tourism sector to local, regional and national economies, and the media attention gives us an opportunity to talk about other issues which are of real concern to our members, such as the implications of Brexit or funding for local authorities to support their museums.

But it’s the analysis of why visitor numbers have gone up or down at our member attractions, and the ability to discern trends across the diverse range of our members, which is the principal reason why we undertake the work every year. The media may focus on the fact that the 10 most-visited attractions in the UK are in London – in itself something that enables us to talk about the very London-centric nature of inbound tourism in the UK, and the need for the government and its agencies to spread the benefits of tourism more widely – but for me the visitor numbers are much more useful. They reveal the impact of the blockbuster temporary exhibition, for example, or the consequences of an organisation being braver and more risk-taking in its programming.

We also patiently explain that a dramatic fall in numbers one year may not denote unpopularity, but simply that the venue was partially closed for refurbishment, or that a decline in numbers is actually a return to ‘normal’ business after a record-breaking previous year (due to a blockbuster exhibition or special anniversary, for instance). The comparison between apples and oranges – a ‘normal’ versus extraordinary year – can easily be made from a superficial glance at annual numbers, which is why deeper analysis is so important.

After the numbers are released we run a number of workshops for our members on trends in visitor numbers and what they denote. Over the last 5 years some things have become apparent: even against a tough background of bad weather, austerity, political instability, and the displacement effect of big events such as the Olympic or Commonwealth Games, attractions that grow their visitor numbers sustainably share some common behaviour. This includes a willingness or ability to invest in refurbishment and refreshing their core offering; a decision to foster creative partnerships with unusual suspects; a determination to tell the stories of their collection, people and places in more engaging ways, attracting new audiences as a result; and a resolve to be bolder in their public programming, including trying new income-generating events.

Sharing case studies and the experiences of attractions – from museums to cathedrals, zoos to gardens, palaces to the Houses of Parliament – enables our members to think about how they can improve visitor experience, which is the most important measure of an attraction’s success.

Finally, visitor numbers are useful in lobbying and advocacy. As a sector lobbyist, I use our members’ figures to illustrate the breadth, depth, global excellence and popularity of attractions in the UK to parliamentarians, policy-makers, the media and business. We have all heard the fact that in 2016 more visitors went to the V&A, Science Museum and Natural History Museum combined than visited Venice. It’s a pithy, memorable nugget that illustrates to people outside of our sector who and what we are. And sometimes numbers – members, visitors, supporters – can illustrate bigger truths, quickly and startlingly. I take heart, for example, from the fact that there are more members of the National Trust in the UK than there are members of the National Rifle Association in the US. Bald statistics may not tell you everything, but sometimes they do count.

From the May 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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