The numbers of physically present visitors at the world’s leading 100 museums and art galleries plunged over the course of last year to less than a quarter of their usual attendance figures. According to the Art Newspaper, which publishes and annual report into leading institutions’ visitor numbers, 2020 saw a drop of some 77 per cent among attendees. Last year, their survey found that among the top museums and galleries around the globe, visitor numbers had dwindled to 54 million. For context, that is based on a figure of 230 million visits in the course of 2019.
Unsurprisingly, it is the pandemic and the enforced closure of many of these institutions that accounts for such a drop on what is, according to nearly every commentator, an unprecedented scale. The cultural survey has been published for over two decades and, in much of that time, it has offered an optimistic outlook for the museum sector, usually with an ever upward cycle of visitor numbers and more and more interest among the public. However, the 2020 figures, which were first published in March, made for quite sobering reading for nearly the whole of the museum and gallery sector. Like other visitor attractions, museums and at galleries have been forced to shut their doors to visitors which has resulted in unsustainable drops in revenue for most institutions.
According to the survey, the Louvre Museum in Paris held on to its number one slot as the world’s most visited museum. This was in part to it reopening for a spell in the summer – albeit with vastly reduced visitor numbers – after it had initially shut entirely during the first wave of the pandemic in Europe. It was also largely due to the final weeks of its hugely popular Leonardo exhibition running in the early part of the year before governments all over the world started to bring in social distancing restrictions. This show alone was drawing in over 10,000 visitors a day before it closed in February 2020.
Nevertheless, the Louvre suffered in much the same way as many public institutions in Europe and North America. Taken from the viewpoint of 2020 as a whole, the Louvre saw 2.7 million visitors come through its famous glass pyramid entrance. That may be higher than most museums but it is still down 72 per cent compared with 2019’s figures. Some estimates suggest that the income loss suffered by the museum could be as much as £17 million for the year.
In the UK, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) – which includes museums and galleries along with a raft of other visitor centres, such as zoos and gardens – published similarly disturbing figures. According to ALVA, both national and regional lockdowns in Britain, along with other Covid restrictions which were in place outside of those times, meant that the total number of visits to attractions they represent fell to 45.4 million in 2020. Over the course of 2019, the same statistic was over 151 million visits.
Interestingly, their data shows some habit changes among visitors. ALVA’s survey revealed that gardens and venues with outdoor spaces were increasingly popular among the British public, largely because it meant being able to occupy an aerated space. Although 2020 saw the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum and the British Museum at the top of the list for most-visited ALVA sites in the UK, two outdoor venues made it into the top ten for the first time, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the RHS Garden at Wisley. Indeed, no venue outside of the capital made it into the most visited attractions in 2019 but that changed during the year of the pandemic because Chester Zoo made ALVA’s top ten.
In Scotland, the pattern was very similar. For example, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in was visited almost half a million times in 2020. This meant that it occupied number 17 on the list of most visited attractions, according to ALVA. This is remarkable because it meant the gardens shot up some 20 places compared to 2019. In Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart – a National Trust visitor attraction – was the second most visited of all sites. It headed up an astonishing 46 places on the list with over 150,000 visitors recorded last year.
According to the Art Newspaper’s survey, the Tate Modern in London had around 1.4 million visits in 2020, down 77 per cent compared with the previous operating year. The Tate was closed for a remarkable 173 days and it estimates that revenue losses for the gallery ran to £56 million despite much of the space being free to visit.
Falls Around the World
Elsewhere, the Vatican Museums in Rome saw visitor numbers drop by over four fifths of their usual level. Despite this, these museums remained the third most visited in the world. The Reina Sofia in Madrid, was placed a respectable fifth on the listed of most visited global museums and galleries. This was partly due to the fact that it was closed for a total of just 80 days in the Spanish capital.
By comparison, the National Gallery in London , which was seventh on the list, was shut for 155 days in 2020. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which was one place behind the National Portrait Gallery, remained closed for 202 days. Ninth on the list was the top ranking Asian museum, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan.
This gallery may have only been forced to close its doors for a total of 66 days but it still saw a 63 per cent fall in the number of visitors it would have expected to welcome in a normal year. In all, it is estimated that some 41,000 days of closure were imposed on the top 100 museums of the world last year. Based on that, many will await the 2021 report with keen anticipation.