UK museum use survey: is the money they give us making no difference?

I realise that museums are only medievally-relevant by coincidence, but in turn I expect you understand why I take an interest in the ‘industry’ that provides my daily bread, and so won’t mind too much if I advertise briefly a rather worrying little factoid that’s emerged from University College London, where Dr Susanne Keene has been carrying out research, using user surveys and staff surveys at around 200 museums across the UK. They’ve been analysing visitor numbers, what is being done to raise visitor numbers and how effective it’s being. This survey only covers stored collections, that is items not on public display, but since that’s basically the principle on which my department operates, partly because coins can only be displayed one side up and mainly because researchers tend to need lots of the same sort of thing whereas we tend to display a range, this concerns me directly.

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, in use for study

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum, where I work, in use for study

The report is 84 pages long, and although an awful lot of that is headings and illustrations I still haven’t gone through it in detail. If we spent the time that it would take to read the bumph that comes out of the Museums and Libraries Association on so doing, we wouldn’t have enough left to do the work for which they fund us, is my candid opinion, followed by questions I’d like to ask about the time they take generating it and what else they could do with that, but leave that aside. This was someone’s project, and that someone, since she is now a consultant, presumably got paid, but all the same she has some experience and the findings are interesting and apparently rigorous, in as much as she’s checked her findings with alternative tests on the data and so on. Now, my interest in all this is whether my job is secure, which has been uncertain ever since the organisation that provides most of my funding, via an intermediary organisation set up to show that we’re using it wisely, went into a reorganisation chrysalis in the middle of the year, with no real idea of what would emerge. So someone with this kind of data is in a position to either reassure or worry me.

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Vexingly, she has both good news and bad news. The good news is predictable: the public want more of museums’ collections to be listed online so that they can find out what there is that they’re not seeing! Huzzah, that’s basically what my job is, I’m safe! Except. The bad news she has is that putting more stuff online does not in fact significantly increase visitor numbers. Lots of museums put an increase in visitor numbers down to such factors, and visitors surveyed also said that online resources made them more likely to come to the museums. The actual numbers however don’t support either case: attendance is up everywhere (though since 80% of the museums involved were looking at figures of less than 100 visitors accessing the collections a year, this may not be very significant) and it’s not significantly correlated with online records or their increase. Much more worryingly, neither is it correlated with museums holding grants to increase their access, i. e. exactly the sort of money that funds my job. Of course putting stuff online may mean that people can avoid actually having to come and see it, and to match this survey we’d need another one analysing changes in web traffic, but the initial impression one gets from this survey is that all the money (such as it has been) that the UK government is pouring into the heritage sector is producing no more (or even less!) results than doing absolutely nothing would have done… I do hope that isn’t the impression the government gets! And meanwhile, come on public, what goes on?

The report is Suzanne Keene, Collections for people: museums’ stored collections as a public resource (London 2008), online here. The images used in this post are from a forthcoming pamphlet, Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use (Cambridge forthcoming) and are copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, even in these grotty low-colour versions that are all I have to hand.

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3 responses to “UK museum use survey: is the money they give us making no difference?

  1. One of my colleagues at NU worked for a while on the big edition of the Ralph Waldo Emerson papers, which edition was meant both to make the papers more accessible and take some pressure off the host institution. The result? The edition inspired more people to come to Massachusetts to see the real thing(s).

  2. So I guess I count as public being as how I am not academic, but love museums, and am an adult, the latter fact of which I suspect is your problem, but I can’t prove it.

    Anyway, I don’t look at collections online, but I do wish museums wouild rotate displays a little more as well. I sometimes feel like the British Museum changes little in the interim that I can’t visit it and that frustrates me. There’s a treasure trove there, but I can’t get at it, see it, learn about it. It’s hidden.

    So…the only way I’ll see it is to look at it online. And yet .jpgs are so soulless that I just can’t see it happening.

  3. One issue here is that for every returning visitor there seem to be several once-only who expect to see the famous stuff. The British Museum, for example, can probably never take the Sutton Hoo helmet off display. Another example, slightly less relevant to here: the National Railway Museum in York have the fastest steam engine ever (at least as officially recorded), Mallard, which hasn’t steamed since the 1980s (when she was 50). It would take nine months to return her to running order, during all of which time she would be off display, but because she’s what a lot of people go there to see, they daren’t start.

    That said, there is certainly plenty that could be done in cases as large as the British Museum to mix it up a bit more. But speaking for my own department, a lot of our best stuff is always on display, because that’s where the best stuff really belongs. On the other hand, with our documentation programme and the putting things online that it involves, we are partly trying for the result that Prof. Muhlberger mentions, to get more people accessing the collections that don’t go on display (you really can’t sensibly exhibit truly large numbers of coins), and part of our job is to thus make it possible for visitors like you, Louise, to get at the hidden treasure as well as the display stuff. I know that the BM has similar programmes (because I’ve tried to get work there doing that in the past) so if you have a particular interest it may be worth contacting someone and asking if you could arrange to see more!

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