You read it here first

In due course, when it has become accepted as a truism, I expect Lee’s First Paradigm – as I’ve modestly decided to name my new theory – to gather a Nobel Prize. LFP concerns museum attendance, and it goes like this: “The proportion of any indigenous population sufficiently stimulated by a love of art and history to visit museums is a constant.”

Like all beautifully simple ideas I can’t understand why someone didn’t think of this before. Having poured over many lists of figures and statistics it becomes obvious that the numbers of home nationals visiting museums is resistant to all social engineering. No attempt to force the masses to drink at the well of art will ever succeed. It seems to me, therefore, that no point is served wasting scarce resources, curatorial or financial, endeavouring further in this regard. Museums might safely rid themselves of their ‘outreach’ departments and the layers of personnel who sit about trying to dream up ways of persuading flatulent couch potatoes through Robert Smirke’s octastyle portico at the British Museum. Art appreciation, the thought-provoking ambience of museums, even the language of sensitiveness and reverence for the past, these are a closed shop whose doors can not be forced open for those congenitally ill-disposed to appreciate them. The commitments to understanding art and to developing a love of museums alight upon a person without either warning or calculation, and often without rhyme or reason, most often when we are still young. Indeed, as with the incidence of ginger hair or lefthandedness, museum-going is more likely genetically encoded than it is the result of response to stimuli such as, say, an advertisement for Pompeo Batoni along the side of a double-decker bus. Like it or not, and it is an unpalatable fact for the do-gooding and politically correct to swallow, museums will always be for those who gravitate to what they have on offer driven there by some innate predisposition, curiosity or intelligence.

In what follows, I shall have to assume – against my better judgement and experience – that the attendance figures with which I’ve been supplied bear at least some relationship to the truth…

The journey to LFP began as a result of a serious short item thrown away at the end of the last editorial. There, I reflected upon the latest fiction from the Tate Gallery. They claimed that one justification for spending £45 million to renovate and rearrange Tate Britain – whose last building project was completed only ten years ago – was the increase in attendance at the museum over the previous decade leading to unanticipated wear and tear. Using their own figures I demonstrated how in fact the attendance at Tate Britain had actually gone down by 12.5% in the previous ten years, and over the previous 17 years by as much as 28%. In fact, in the 21 years of President-For-Life Serota’s imperium, with its routine claims of overwhelming Turner Prize popularity, huge public support for State Art in general, and greatly widened audience participation among Kalahari bushmen, Liverpudlian delinquents etc. etc., attendance at Tate Britain has not increased at all.

Having over recent decades become used to politicians’ lies of omission, we all know that you can prove any old cobblers with statistics, but the Tate’s statement was demonstrably factually incorrect. I repeat: according to their own figures in the last ten years attendance at Tate Britain has dived by an eighth.

Until recently it was common to see museum directors justifying their insistent pleas for yet more taxpayers’ cash with claims, naturally never substantiated, that their museums were more popular than at any time since the opening of Alexander’s library. These same directors rely on a docile press not to check such ex cathedra pronouncements. Those malingering time-servers called ‘Chief Arts Correspondents’ have much to answer for: they merely copy out what they’ve been told in press releases without ever thinking to verify any of it, although surely this should be their principle function. Admittedly they have to be wary of whose feet they tread on, for fear of suddenly finding themselves outside the loop, not to mention off the party and junket circuit.

Attendance figures at Tate Britain fluctuate but neither increase nor decrease. The graph of visitor numbers is a modestly undulating flat line. In long periods of peace time, such as those of the last thirty years, figures rise and fall slightly according to a number of unpredictable variables: the whims of audiences; the weather; the economy; the presence of a popular (or ignored) blockbuster in exhibition schedules; and, crucially, the capriciousness of foreign tourists. Did you know for example that only one in four tourists visiting London make their way to the British Museum which, being free to enter, has to constitute the best value for money anywhere in the world? It begs the question: if not for this what the hell do the other three-quarters bother coming here for? This result, by the way,  undermines the fact that most foreigners state their main reason for visiting is our free galleries and museums.

The popularity of our national museums is not, as is implied by their directors, a result of more British people visiting because of the sterling efforts made by their superfluous ‘outreachers’ or their overmanned and overpaid marketing regimes, or even their wrongheaded policies of dumbing down displays in order to attract idiots, but because more foreigners have been tempted through their free portals. The single biggest factor in national museum attendance is not the damascene conversion to culture of indigenous telly addicts but the relative buoyancy of foreign tourism. Post-1945, as soon as food rationing ended in ’54 and cheap travel kicked in, attendance figures rise steeply. In the case of the British Museum the proportion of foreign visitors has been as high as 55% (2001) and 60% (2010) of total attendance, although the museum sometimes claims, based on casual estimates, that the figure is as low as a third. In my weekly experience of the British Museum this is surely a serious underestimate as virtually every other visitor is, to my eye, almost always conspicuously a tourist.

One might have predicted that the rapid increase over the last generation in the proportion of those taking a ‘university’ education would have resulted in an audience increase, museum-going customarily being considered a pursuit of the better educated. No evidence in published figures supports such a conclusion. Accepting that the better educated are those who attend museums, I am tempted to conclude that, despite the obviously engineered improvements in exam results and wholesale increases in the armies of unemployed now brandishing worthless degree certificates, the overall educational standard of the population would appear to be at best unaltered.

Likewise, the disgraceful obsession, also relentlessly accelerated during the last generation, of museums actively encouraging disruptive parties of noisy schoolchildren, who constitute between 12% and 15% of total attendance figures. These too would not appear to have translated into any discernible increase in the numbers of adult museum-goers. The latest figure, by the way, for museum attendance is that 37% of the adult population of the UK visit a gallery or museum once a year, although museum bodies routinely claim the proportion to be between 50% and 60%. The truth is we don’t really know and, as you will discover below, the figures are hopelessly unreliable.

The British Museum has kindly supplied me with their attendance records from 1760 (12,000 visitors), the year in which it opened in Bloomsbury. Like those at Tate Britain, audience levels at the BM have in the last generation reached a plateau of maturity. If there is on average a tiny edging upwards, this can be put down to a rising population. There is also the matter, indicated in several recent surveys, that the same people are tending to visit museums more frequently: I alone, for example, constitute around 50 in the museum’s annual attendance figure. Over the last 25 years numbers visiting the British Museum have gone down slightly as a proportion of the country’s population. This is explained by the fact that in the last ten years, that is in the aftermath of 9/11, fewer foreigners have visited Britain; indeed, fewer in 2006 than in 1991 despite the collapse in the cost of airline tickets.

During the 19th century blocks of annual figures rise by the same number (c.14,000) every year, suggesting they were either estimated or made up: they are certainly too suspect for drawing any serious conclusions. Two figures which stand out are those for 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, and 1862, when another similar International Exposition was mounted. In 1851 the attendance of 2,615,380 was the same proportion of the indigenous population as is the annual attendance today, although there were undoubtedly included a higher proportion of British nationals then than now, because foreign travel was neither as cheap and convenient nor as common in 1851 as it is today. It would take the British Museum until 1972, the year of the hugely popular Tutankhamun exhibition, to achieve an attendance figure higher than that achieved in 1851 – and this despite the considerably more than doubling of the population during the intervening period.

Museum directors have been bombarded by threats and menaces from successive Ministers to make their institutions more popular to those who are uninterested in them. This, Ministers think, will better justify the museums’ public subsidies – £45 million p.a. in the case of the BM. LFP suggests this is impossible because in a period of settled peace the base figures for those visiting museums scarcely alters. With the benefit of LFP, museums might now resist the populist urgings of ignorant politicians and safely return to their core purpose of scholarship.

David Lee

The Jackdaw Mar-Apr 2011