Hi-tech attractions make inroads into museum visits

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The number of visits to museums and art galleries fell by nearly one million within a year, according to a survey released yesterday.

The number of visits to museums and art galleries fell by nearly one million within a year, according to a survey released yesterday.

Attendance at displays across Britain dropped by 4 per cent between 1997 and 1998, according to the second annual report by the Museums and Galleries Commission.

While the proportion of museums staying open for 10 to 12 months of the year has remained constant, at 62 per cent, more than 20 per cent have reduced their opening hours in summer, and 14 per cent have done so in winter.

The news comes as the Government steps up its drive to boost attendance at museums and galleries by making them more affordable and accessible.

Valeria Bott, deputy director of the commission, said curators needed to work hard to make sure museums moved with the times, but denied they were in "crisis".

She said: "One of the things museums are looking at is attracting new audiences, as part of their policies for social inclusion, because in the past their audiences have been very white and middle class. Leisure attractions these days include shopping in new-style centres on Sundays and the chance to visit new Lottery-refurbished projects, which are just coming on line. We have a problem, because museums are going to lose out in that more competitive world."

Ms Bott said it was hard to tell the significance of the apparent tail-off in attendances at displays such as the British Museum in London, as the commission had only published two annual reports.

But she added: "It is something we are watching, but it's certainly not yet a crisis. The point about museums is that it's the real stuff, not just electronic gadgets, but electronic gadgets do draw people in.

"People won't be seduced into visiting museums if we don't do something to compete for their leisure time, and that could mean more ideas such as using electronic gadgets, for instance, to let them see parts of our collections they are not allowed direct access to."

Reacting to the report, Alan Howarth, minister for the Arts, said child attendance at the 12 main national museums had risen by one-quarter since entry fees for those under 16 were scrapped last year.

"The Government wants to see our museums and galleries enjoyed by as many people as possible. That is why it gave the sector its biggest increase in funding last year," he said. "This year will see entry charges for pensioners removed and money is available to take the policy further in years to come."

In total, British museums and galleries were visited on 65.5 million occasions in 1998. About six million of these visits were to the National Gallery and Imperial War Museum in London, both of which conduct their own surveys.

Other statistics revealed in the report showed that the proportion of museums and galleries offering education facilities rose by 12 per cent between 1997 and 1998, and that the percentage with disabled amenities went up by 8 per cent.

The new figures are based on a core sample of 289 museums and galleries which responded to both the 1997 and 1998 Digest of Museum Statistics surveys.