Museums boom as the dust disappears

THIS MORNING, 380 Cubs - 379 boys and one girl - will wake up in sleeping-bags tucked between space rockets and steam engines on the gallery floors of the Science Museum in London. Last night they learned about hot-air balloons and built one. Today's subject is electricity.

This is no elaborate 'bob- a-job' ritual but part of the museum's Science Nights, in which children camp overnight on the premises and, through a series of demonstrations, exercises and films, learn the rudiments of science.

The Science Museum is one of Britain's booming museums. In 1850 there were just 60 of them but in the past 30 years numbers have nearly trebled from 870 to about 2,500.

According to the Museums and Galleries Commission - the museum equivalent of the Arts Council - a new or refurbished building opens every fortnight.

Peter Longman, director of the commission, believes this rise owes much to Britain's squirrel-like hoarding of the past. 'We like to collect things and preserve them,' he said. 'Local people have a sense of pride in their town's history. I've seen museums open and half their collection walk in off the street after the first week.'

While the South Kensington complex of the Victoria & Albert, Science, Natural History and Geology museums still dominates the field, it is the growth of independent, specialist museums which has been remarkable in recent years.

Virtually every conceivable passion, from lawnmowers to stained-glass windows, now has a museum dedicated to it. There is a Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, Cumbria; the Fan Museum in Greenwich, south-east London, has proved immensely popular since its opening three years ago; and a 'Draining the Fens' exhibition at Pinchbeck, near Spalding, Lincolnshire, is drawing the crowds.

But Mr Longman also believes that the nation has become much more sophisticated culturally, thanks mainly to expanding media coverage of the arts. 'Take the Picasso exhibition at the Tate. They were queuing round the corner after the season of programmes on television. Now that wouldn't have happened five years ago.'

With competition from such other leisure attractions as Alton Towers and the Chessington World of Adventures, museums and galleries have also had to be more aggressive in efforts to attract visitors. That most venerable of institutions, the V&A, led the way with its much-criticised advertising slogan 'The V&A - an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached', but the populist approach appears to have worked.

Around 80 million people now visit galleries and museums each year. According to the British Tourist Authority, the British Museum is the most popular attraction in the UK, with 6.3 million visitors a year, while seven of the top 10 attractions are museums or galleries.

The days of dusty exhibits in dustier display cases in poorly lit galleries are long gone. Marketing techniques, interactive displays, shops and better restaurants have helped to attract the crowds.

Tony Hirst, chairman of the Association of Independent Museums, said the independent sector, which accounts for around a half of Britain's museums and galleries, had been mainly responsible for precipitating change.

While independent museums benefit from limited grants and subsidies, they cannot rely on these to survive. Instead they have been driven by the imperative to make money and by awareness that, to justify charging for admission, visitors expect more than glass-case exhibits with explanatory notes on adjacent panels.

Mr Longman also pointed out the importance of this approach. 'If you look at the typical person running a gallery these days, they're pretty lively - they know how to make contact with the local media, they understand the importance of fund-raising and marketing. Ten or 15 years ago, you could get away with being a scholar because it didn't matter whether people came.'

But for all the bullish talk, Mr Hirst foresees trouble ahead. While visitors to museums have increased overall, the average number visiting each museum has fallen - from 72,000 in 1978 to about 43,000 in 1992.

More worryingly, the numbers attending fee-paying museums have fallen by nearly 20 per cent since 1987. There are simply not enough customers to go round, thinks Mr Hirst.

'No sooner does a pit close in Yorkshire than the local town sets about turning it into a museum. And there are only so many mining museums you can take. There is a fragile economy for museums and before long there's going to be a major sort- out.

'There's duplication of collections all over the country and I do not believe there is the money to maintain all those objects for the next 20 years.'

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