Cultural benefits: UK museums and galleries are success story of recession

By Ben Miller Published: 27 October 2009

A picture of people sitting on the steps outside an enormous stone building

Visitor numbers are up by 19% at London's National Gallery (above), where major shows have drawn the crowds, but smaller galleries across the UK have also had to use their imagination to adapt to increased attendances.

Amid the gloom of the recession, businessmen might cast envious eyes towards museums and galleries.

Cultural quarters have been filled by families seeking cheap days out that stimulate minds without hitting the wallet and the number of people choosing the UK over expensive trips to the continent – "staycations", as the national press would have it – have been instrumental in escalating punter numbers.

In the year to April 2009, the number of people visiting London’s tourist and cultural attractions soared by 20%, a figure repeated at the National Gallery and beaten by leading institutions in cities such as Liverpool, which is still feeling the potent benefits of the Capital of Culture year it enjoyed in 2008.

But while high-profile exhibitions take the limelight, the bigger attendances and new audiences mean that all venues are being forced to widen their attraction and embrace their popularity with imagination and energy.

A picture of treasures

The Vale of York hoard arrived at York Museums Trust this year. © Trustees of the British Museum

Among the unlikely winners, Pontefract Museum, which has recorded the largest visitor numbers in its 31-year history, symbolises a hefty rise for museums outside London and the nationals.

"It goes to show that people are really interested in what Wakefield has to offer," says Denise Jeffery, the Cabinet Minister for culture in the West Yorkshire town. Even if residents didn’t take the plunge, they still thought about it – the museum pages and virtual exhibitions on the Council’s website shot up by almost a quarter.

The quartet of key cultural sites in York have also recorded an "increased footfall", as York Museums Trust director of business development Mike Woodward puts it, to the tune of 10%.

"We believe this is for several reasons – not least the investment by the Trust in the attractions, such as the York Castle Prison experience at York Castle Museum and the arrival of the Vale of York Viking Hoard at the Yorkshire Museum," he says.

"As a Trust we have specifically marketed money-saving offers this year to attract people wanting to save money. York Art Gallery and York St Mary's are free to all, and all York residents can get in free with a York Card."

They're looking to repeat their success by closing the Yorkshire Museum for a £2 million, nine-month refurbishment programme in November, illustrating how authorities are seeking to boost the quality of the visit for their audience.

A picture of a gallery with chairs and dim lighting from chandeliers

Gallery improvements and buildings, such as the new Silver and Metals Gallery at The Bowes Museum, have encouraged people to visit. © Continuum

Historic sites such as historic buildings and castles are also seeing an upswing in visitor numbers. English Heritage’s eighth annual survey of the state of England’s historic environment, Heritage Counts, found that visitor numbers at English Heritage attractions rose by almost a third.

Heritage Open Days, the organisation's flagship annual event, which opens rarely-seen buildings and areas to the public, enticed a million visitors to more than 4,000 venues. Similarly more than 11 million people visited paid-entry National Trust sites - an 18% increase on last year's figures.

Perhaps the most extensive research has been carried out by The Art Fund, who canvassed 225 museums to find out how they fared this summer.

Crediting favourable weather and strong exhibition programmes as contributory factors, two-thirds of the national museums surveyed reported a rise in visitors.

The tills in on-site shops and cafes were also making swift trade, an important source of income for cash-strapped centres.

"Our programme this summer has been more popular than the previous year," a spokesman for the Victoria and Albert Museum said, praising the popularity of Hats: An Anthology, the headline show by designer Stephen Jones. "In the current economic climate, free admission must influence visitors."

More than a million people saw the show in six months, representing a 10% rise.

A picture of a man posing with hats

Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones scored a significant increase in visitors for London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Justine Photography

Steepening costs have however proved problematic for museums, with many complaining of rising utility bill costs. But at the Bowes Museum multimillion-pound improvement works have reaped dividends.

"Visitor numbers are definitely up, and this could in part be attributed to the staycation effect," says Head of Business and Operations Matt Leng.

"But we feel that the major improvement programme the Museum has undergone has been very much a contributory factor. The new Silver and Metals Gallery, café and shop and visitor amenities on the ground floor have enhanced visitors' enjoyment."

At the Harris Museum in Preston, organisers based their summer exhibition around fairytales and mermaid stories in an Enchanted Worlds educational exhibition.

"It proved a huge success and gave us our largest attendance for many years," says show curator Dr Amanda Draper, Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum.

"It was primarily aimed at a family audience, with a range of children's activities and events, but also catered for an adult audience by providing audio guides, talks and tours exploring darker aspects of fairytale interpretation."

A picture of a woman demonstrating hands-on art to school pupils

Hands-on learning activities at Leeds Art Gallery.

John Roles, the Head of Leeds Museums and Galleries, also credits education and learning programmes with a season of success.

Being and Becoming, a project for very young children operating within and outside Leeds Art Gallery, and experimental workshops based on a different artwork each month for teenagers, are among their major hits.

"I think it's fair to say that all of our attractions are performing really well, despite the current economic conditions," he says.

"We have seen increases across the board since the recession began. We had nearly a million visitors last year, and we're on course to beat that."