Looking at the numbers.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I’m the go-to stats person at work, well, one of them. I like numbers, I like records and I like to see how many people we are reaching. That’s why I get excited when I see the DCMS publishes a new set of stats, like the fresh of the press Sponsored Museums Performance Indicators. Now, before I go any further with this, it needs to be said that numbers only tell a part of the story. Yet, it’s always the stats people fixate on.

Go and get a cup of tea, sit down and have a read of the report.

The numbers published are… disappointing. One of the key findings was that visits from children declined by 14.4%. Yes, that’s an alarming figure, especially for those working in Learning departments. Even more so when there is an 11.5% decrease in School visits too.

But, the numbers only tell a part of the story.

The figures for 2014/2015 were compiled with Tyne and Wear Museums and the Horniman Museum, however, Tyne and Wear is no longer sponsored by DCMS and the Horniman’s data was not robust enough and was discounted (this is in the footnotes, so can easily be missed).

So, what does that mean for the numbers?

It means a decline of only 1.8% for child visits and a 6.9% decline for school visits. Less worrying stuff. Given what’s been going on in the classrooms, this isn’t a surprise. Back in 2011, the Guardian reported, rather dramatically, that school trips to museums are a thing of the past. Luckily the past is what museums specialise in.

Some outlets, are taking a more pessimistic reading of the numbers. ArtnetNews interprets the findings as indicative of a ‘dwindling interest in Art History,’ and cite the number of students taking Art History (note, NOT ART) at GCSE level as further indication of this. The fact that arts subjects are increasingly sidelined in the curriculum has been left unmentioned.

The Museums Association gets it, speaking to The Guardian,  MA spokesperson Alistair Brown, 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.”

But, back to the numbers. What has gone unreported is that some institutions have seen an increase in child visits.

The number of visits to DCMS sponsored museums by children

Source: DCMS

The Science Museum Group, the British Museum, the V&A, Royal Museums Greenwich have all seen increases. Tate have seen a lot of building works and revamps (Tate St. Ives has been closed for a while now!) and the National Gallery has been disrupted by strike actions, so a decrease is to be expected there. You can’t book a school trip if the venue isn’t open!

And numbers in general?

Total visits to the UK's National Museums

Source: DCMS

Again, we can see that some institutions have seen an increase; the British Museum, the Science Museum Group, the V&A, National Museums Liverpool, Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Portrait Gallery, Horniman, Wallace, Sir John Soane and the Geffrye have all seen an increase in visitors.

Yet, we get headlines like this from The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones: The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope.

There are claims that fear of terrorism is deterring visitors, using the Louvre’s 2 million drop in attendance as support, but I think the lack of blockbuster exhibitions is probably a bit closer t the truth. Remember those heady days of the V&A’s David Bowie blockbuster? Or the British Museum’s wonderful Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum? It has been ages since we’ve seen exhibitions as exciting and accessible as those.

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