The Royal Armouries in Leeds recorded an increase last year linked to the first world war centenary commemorations

Record-breaking year for DCMS-sponsored museums and galleries

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 31.10.2019
Visits bounce back after several years in decline
National museums and galleries in England enjoyed their highest visitor figures yet in 2018-19, according to the latest figures released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

There were 48.9 million visits to the 15 DCMS-sponsored institutions in England between April 2018 and 2019 – the highest figure since records began in 2002-03 (excluding data from Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, which is no longer sponsored by DCMS).  

The latest data shows that overall visits rose 5.5% on the previous year, bucking the downward trend seen among national institutions in recent years. Overseas visitors accounted for 48% of the total figure.

The British Museum remains the UK’s single most-visited museum, recording just over 6 million visits in 2018-19. The museum was temporarily knocked off its top spot by Tate Modern earlier this year, but a recent review found that a faulty lightbulb had caused its visitor numbers to be miscounted. The venue’s figures actually increased by 3.5% in 2018/19.

The Tate’s four sites attracted the highest number of visits overall, welcoming a combined 8.2 million people through their doors in 2018-19.

National Museums Liverpool saw the largest increase in visits, with figures up 20% to 4 million following the success of blockbuster exhibitions on China’s terracotta warriors, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The centenary of the first world war and Armistice Day last year led to a 9% increase at Imperial War Museum sites, which welcomed 2.7 million visitors, and an 8.6% increase at the Royal Armouries, which saw just under 3 million people come to its three sites.

The National Gallery in London recorded 5.9 million visits, a 17.3% increase which it attributed to the popularity of blockbuster exhibitions on Claude Monet and Lorenzo Lotto.

The National Portrait Gallery saw visits fall by 8.4% to just under 1.6 million. It marks the second consecutive year that numbers have fallen at the gallery - although the decline isn't as steep as was feared at one point, when faulty equipment led to its 2017-18 figures being miscounted. The gallery is about to embark on a £35.5m redevelopment.

There were 8.5 million visits by children to DCMS-sponsored sites last year, accounting for 17% of the total number of visits - a significant recovery after visits by under-16s fell to a low of 7.5 million in 2016-17.

While child visits held steady or dipped slightly at most sites last year, the Natural History Museum recorded a record 1.5 million visits by children, up 26.8% on 2017-18. The museum attributed this to its Kids go Free campaign, which boosted visits by under-16s to its Life in the Dark exhibition.

The latest data from the DCMS’s rolling Taking Part survey found that 50.2% of adults in England had visited a museum or gallery in the previous 12 months.

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