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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor