Home Arts Two years later, London museums are still short of visitors, what happened?

Two years later, London museums are still short of visitors, what happened?

by godlove4241
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Visitor figures for London’s major museums are still significantly behind figures reached in 2019, just before the pandemic. The decline in international tourism is the main factor, with foreign tourists typically accounting for around half of visitors to major national museums. However, although most UK residents have resumed visiting museums, even their numbers are down slightly.

An overview is revealed by government data for all publicly funded museums in England, which are mainly in London. In the first nine months of 2022, there were 23.2 million visits, down 40% from the same period in 2019.

If the permanent collections of museums financed by public funds are normally free to visit, their finances nevertheless depend on dynamic attendance: for income from shops and restaurants, and the sale of tickets for temporary exhibitions.


Analyzing the 2022 data, there were, predictably, clear signs of improvement as the year progressed and the pandemic continued to recede. In the first quarter the drop was 54%, but in the second and third quarters the drop improved to 36% and then to 33%.

The National Gallery faces the slowest recovery. Last year, it welcomed 2.7 million visitors, down 55% from its figure of 6 million in 2019. It thus lost nearly 3.3 million visitors, more than any other museum in our investigation. This may come as a surprise since in 2022 she mounted two very well received exhibitions: Raphael And Lucian Freud: new perspectives.

“National numbers are close to recovery”

A spokesperson for the National Gallery said “the reduction in international tourism has been a key factor in reducing our visitor numbers”. It is among London’s museums most dependent on foreign visitors, who just before the pandemic amounted to 66% of their total. The spokesperson adds that “national figures are close to recovery” compared to 2019.

English Museum

The British Museum offers an interesting comparison, since it was almost equally dependent on tourism (64% of visitors just before the pandemic). Last year it saw 4.1 million visitors, down 34% from 6.2 million in 2019, so it has recovered much faster than the National Gallery.

A spokesperson for the British Museum attributes the reduction to several factors. The museum has been particularly affected by the drop in the number of Chinese visitors. Extreme weather conditions in 2022 – a cold winter followed by a hot summer – have discouraged visitors, as have a series of transport strikes. Additionally, the Omicron Covid-19 variant has made some people hesitant to venture into the museum.

by Cornelia Parker Cold dark matter: an exploded view (1991), part of a retrospective at Tate Britain last year; the number of gallery visitors in 2022 was about half that of 2019
Photo: Oliver Cowling, © Tate

Tate and V&A

The Tate Modern, which in the years before the pandemic jostled with the British Museum as the UK’s most popular, saw its numbers fall to 3.9million last year, down 36% from 6 .1million in 2019. Tate Britain did much worse, although it was less dependent on international tourists before the pandemic, with 913,000, down 49% from 1.8million in 2019. Tate spokesperson said: “It will take time for domestic and international tourism to recover, but we have seen very high attendance from the local public.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) welcomed 2.4 million visitors to its main site in South Kensington, down 40% from 3.9 million in 2019. A V&A spokesperson points out that “visits international markets were down, with inbound tourism to London still far from pre-pandemic levels and travel restrictions still in place for some countries.” There was also less domestic tourism last summer as “people took advantage of the easing of UK travel restrictions” to travel overseas. Until last April, the V&A was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (the other museums studied were all open daily), which likely led to a drop in visitor numbers in the first months of 2022.

Recovery on the way?

All of the major London museums in our survey cited the fall in international tourism as an important factor in a slow post-pandemic recovery. The National Gallery and the British Museum previously depended on tourists for around two-thirds of their visitors, the V&A for around 38% and the two Tates in London fell between these figures.

So what are the prospects for this year? Official organization Visit Britain now forecasts the UK will welcome 35.1 million visitors in 2023, down 14 per cent from 40.9 million in 2019. Visitors from Europe have largely returned and tourism has North America is doing reasonably well, but the numbers from East Asia, and particularly China, are still down significantly.

Visit Britain points out that its figure of 35.1 million was arrived at by balancing a number of factors. “There will be a minority of travelers who will remain nervous about Covid and be deterred, but many want to travel again; cost-of-living pressures will prevent some from travelling, but most regular/occasional international travelers will still go overseas,” a spokesperson said.

No quick recovery

The global economic situation will certainly be difficult in 2023, which is likely to act against a rapid return to pre-pandemic tourism levels.

With a reduction in international travel abroad from the UK caused by the pandemic, one would have expected museums to have attracted more local visitors last year than in 2019, but this does not has generally not been the case. Since the pandemic, the British are more inclined to visit outdoor attractions. And with international travel becoming easier, there is a pent-up demand for vacations abroad.

Today, the concern of museums is that they are affected by the various problems facing the British economy: very high inflation, rising energy prices and the threat of recession. Although most major museums have free admission to their permanent collections and one would think they would benefit from less spending capacity, the cost of local travel to museums and refreshments when available discourages visitation when times are tough.

“Instead of resuming business as usual, we are taking this opportunity to deepen visitor engagement”

With declining visitor numbers, museums are tempted to suggest that this is not as important a criterion of success as previously believed. As a Tate spokesperson explained: “Instead of returning to business as usual, we are now developing more environmentally and financially sustainable ways of working, while making the most of this opportunity to deepen visitor engagement.”


The only museum expected to do better than before the pandemic is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which had planned to close in June 2020 for a major renovation. This closure had to be brought forward due to the pandemic, so it has been closed since March 2020 and is now due to reopen on June 22.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, the National Portrait Gallery had 1.6 million visitors (compared to peaks of over 2 million visitors per year between 2012 and 2015). With the fanfare of the upcoming opening and pent-up demand to see the collection, there’s a good chance the NPG will exceed 2 million visitors in its first 12 months. The gallery will therefore likely be the first major UK museum to see its number of visitors exceed pre-pandemic levels.

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