The people's college

Museums are pulling in more punters than ever. Are we really a nation r avenous for knowledge? Kevin Jackson reports Tabloids do not splash scantily clad curators over their front pages
Britain's film production may inhabit an eerie zone part-way between the living and the undead, our football players and managers may suffer derision and disgrace, but there is one sector of the nation's leisure industry that appears to be doing m agnificently. Last year, according to a report issued by the Museums and Galleries Commission, more than 110 million people went to museums in the UK - or, to be more precise, some 110 million visits were made.

This is an extraordinary figure; it suggests that museums are a more popular leisure resource than football grounds or cinemas. It contradicts the view that because we all now live in an "imaginary museum" - it was Andre Malraux, De Gaulle's Minister of Culture, who coined the phrase - of posters and newspaper photos, of videos and computer images, then the real-life museums of bricks, mortar and dinosaur bones must lose their appeal. On the contrary, it seems that these grand, eclectic supermarkets of learning dominate our cityscapes more imperiously than ever.

What's more, museums have managed this coup almost silently, without any of the support systems of press and television coverage enjoyed by their competitors. Tabloids do not splash pictures of scantily clad curators over their front pages; news programmes do not dwell on the astronomical transfer fees paid to assistant directors. And yet admissions to museums look as if they have increased by no less than 34 per cent since 1987.

As with all statistics, however, there are some difficulties. As Sue Runyard of the M&GC points out: "What these figures really suggest is not so much that there has been a great and continuing rise in admissions - in fact, as far as we can see, a lot ofmuseums have reached a kind of plateau figure - as that in recent years we've been consistently under-assessing the figures, which have been about this high for quite a long time."

There are further complications. The possibility that this notional triumph of the museum might have more to do with the recession than with a new hunger for knowledge is hinted at in another part of the same report, which says that museums that charge an entrance fee have seen their admissions decrease by 23 per cent. (The attraction of free museums for the poor and underemployed is evident: they offer not only free diversion, but a warm place to sit.)

Yet even this sum demands deeper scrutiny, partly because some of the charging museums are thriving, and partly because methods of assessment vary so widely.

The latter point is clarified by Professor John Durant, head of Science Communication at London's Science Museum where admissions - £4.50 entrance to most adult visitors, various concessions for others - have risen over the past five years, modestly but steadily, from about 1.1 million in 1989 to about 1.3 million for the past year.

Professor Durant disputes both the large admission figures cited for the free museums - such as 7 million a year for the British Museum - and the degree to which charges must be seen as a serious disincentive to visitors.

"In 1988, when admissions charges were applied," says Professor Durant, "the number of visitors [to the Science Museum] fell sharply from about 2.3 million to 1.1 million. Now, this looks pretty conclusive, but the problem is that we simply don't believethat figure of 2.3 million, just as we don't believe the high figures being attributed to non-charging museums at the moment. Why? Because only if you charge admission do you have the incentive or the ability to count your visitors accurately.

"The method we used is still employed in a lot of museums, which is to have warders pressing hand-held clickers - a system which leads to systematic over-counting. For example, our old records say that more than 20,000 people would pass through the building on a busy day, and yet we know that when we have 12,000 or 13,000 people here on a bank holiday, the building is packed. So we have every reason to believe that attendances at non-charging museums are being over-estimated by as much a third."

Even granted a fair measure of distortion, it is clear that museums of both kinds are thriving. They are evidently doing a better job of finding out what visitors want, and then supplying it. Also, says Prof Durant, there are better facilities (cafes, cloakrooms, seating and the like); a good mixture of traditional attractions and the latest things and, most importantly,there is "interactivity".

"Interactivity" means things you can push, tug, twiddle, pull, spin, open, jump on and talk to, rather than simply stand back and gawp at. Museums of all kinds have been increasingly playing up their interactive functions, though the value of such gadgets was established as long ago as the 1930s, when the Science Museum introduced its Children's Gallery.

In the 1920s, when the Science Museum was strictly for gazing, annual admissions stood at about 500,000. With the introduction of the first pushing and pulling machines, it doubled almost immediately. North American museums, in particular, took careful note.

Purists often tend to be sniffy about interactivity, feeling that it is symbolic of a drift away from the scholarly and conserving roles of museums. This recent debate is itself part of a much longer argument about the democratic functions of the institution, the most spectacular phase of which came in the French Revolution, when the doors of the Louvre were thrown open to the public.

Museums have a divided family tree, with greedy or eccentric aristocrats on one side and an idealistic bourgeoisie on the other. Though some form of the museum has been known for thousands of years (the Athenians had a museum of sorts at Delphi), the immediate forebears of those institutions that loom large in our cities can be found in the Middle Ages and late Renaissance, in the ecclesiastical or monarchical collections of treasures that spawned the modern art gallery and the "cabinets of curiosities"

assembled by scientists, antiquarians and scholars. One such collection, Elias Ashmole's, formed the basis for what is commonly regarded as the first true museum - Oxford's Ashmolean, founded in 1683.

But the museum as we know it is of much more recent origin - a creation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although such institutions have often been slurred as elitist - particularly since the phrase "heritage industry" became an insult - their growth was bound up with the introduction of popular education and the birth of tourism. The aristocrat's hoard was transformed - ideally, anyway - into the people's free university.

To be sure, the encyclopaedists probably never envisaged the likes of the Science Museum's "Launch Pad" or "Flight Lab" exhibits, and anyone who has witnessed, or been part of, a cacophonous horde of schoolchildren spilling fizzy drinks over a simulated cyclotron might want to question how educational the "fun" museum can be.

But it's hard not to be fired by Professor Durant's enthusiasm for the tradition of popular instruction envisaged by Prince Albert when the Science Museum and V&A were founded: "As we'd put it nowadays, he wanted to `raise consciousness', to show people not only what had happened in the past but what was happening now, and to stop Britain from becoming a parochial, backward place."

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of popular education may have to be endless pushings, pullings, twistings, bouncings and twiddlings.