Visitor numbers at Britain’s museums, galleries, zoos, castles and country houses increased by nearly 9% last year despite a decrease in numbers of overseas tourists.
Figures published on Wednesday show striking rises across the UK helped by stories as diverse as Dippy the “150m-year-old dinosaur”, a regiment of 2,200-year-old terracotta warriors and a one-year-old polar bear called Hamish.
Tate Modern was the UK’s most visited attraction thanks to its extension and wildly successful Picasso and Modigliani shows. Its 3.7% rise knocked the British Museum, where visitor numbers fell 1.3%, off the top spot it had held for 11 years.
Bernard Donoghue, the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), said the UK-wide increase was surprising and bigger than expected, given the number of overseas visitors to the UK dropped 4% last year.
“Our assumption is that the biggest growth here has been in us Brits going to more museums, galleries and visitor attractions across the UK. The really big growth stories have been in the regions of the UK, particularly Northern Ireland, Liverpool and Birmingham, which is absolutely brilliant,” he said.
According to Donoghue, venues were getting better at attracting audiences who previously thought their exhibits were not for them. “Visitor numbers are just one barometer of success,” he said. “The greatest barometer is whether people like it and come back … All of our museums, galleries and attractions seem to be pushing the envelope, taking new risks, doing creative things and making visitors happier as a result.”
In statistical terms, Scotland outperformed the rest of the UK for the seventh year running with a 19.07% increase.
Donoghue said it was down to several factors including increased tourism due to more flights to Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scottish government and lottery investment in the sector, the arrival of V&A Dundee and an increase in film and TV tourism.
For example, Doune Castle, famous for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has been more recently a location for the TV series Outlander. Last year, its visitor numbers increased by 14% to 142,091.
The three-year tour of Dippy the diplodocus, the popular 21-metre long Victorian cast of a dinosaur, continues to increase visitor numbers. Last year, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery saw a 38% rise to 831,548. “Everywhere Dippy has gone, visitor numbers have gone through the roof,” Donoghue said. “It is having a transformational effect right across the UK.”
One of the biggest rises was at the World Museum in Liverpool, where visitor numbers increased by 111% to 1,416,632 thanks to the arrival of an army of the first emperor’s terracotta warriors. The growth made it the most-visited museum in England outside London.
Not all attractions saw visitor numbers rise. The “Beast from the East” at the start of 2018 and the spectacularly hot summer led to some outdoor attractions experiencing falling visitor numbers, with Bristol zoo down 8.6%, Whipsnade zoo down 7.6% and RHS Garden Wisley down 6.3%.
In contrast to Tate Modern, Tate Britain dropped from the 15th most-visited attraction to 25th, a 26.9% fall. That though came after a terrific 2017 when it staged its popular David Hockney exhibition.
Most other national museums saw increases, including the National Gallery (9.7%), Natural History Museum (18%) and V&A (5%). The figures chime with an annual survey of art galleries published this week by the Art Newspaper.
Numbers in London increased overall by 3.37% and all of Britain’s top 10 attractions are in the capital. That comes after two years of flatlining visitor numbers because of rail problems, terrorism fears and the cost of buying things in London.
Donoghue said there were plans to keep the momentum going with campaigns reminding Londoners of what wonders there are on their doorstep.
“We’re realising from research we’ve done over the past couple of years that for Londoners, there are lots of amazing attractions they all know about and probably went to as children … but they almost need to be reminded they can come back at any time.”
The most-visited attraction outside London was Chester zoo (13) and the most-visited heritage site was Stonehenge (20).
The ALVA figures show how the addition of a children’s play area can have a dramatic effect. A Weehailes playpark at Newhailes, a 17th-century Palladian villa on the outskirts of Musselburgh, helped increase visitor numbers by more than 1,000% to 68,360.
Donoghue said one of his favourite initiatives was the cheerfully gory Game of Thrones tapestry made by volunteers for Ulster Museum in Belfast. “They saw a massive increase in visitor numbers and importantly they were mostly young people who had never stepped inside a museum before,” he said.
While the overall picture is good, Brexit remained a looming concern, said Donoghue. Tourism is the UK’s fifth-biggest industry and third-biggest employer, and if Britain’s attractiveness diminishes then attractions will suffer, he added, pointing to places such as Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, where about 80% of paying visitors are overseas tourists.
Other attractions with notable increases
The Highland Wildlife park in the Cairngorms had a 51.5% increase in visitor numbers to 205,930 due to Hamish, the first polar bear born in the UK for 25 years. He turned one in December and shares an enclosure with his mother, Victoria.
Carlisle Castle experienced a 285% rise in visitor numbers to 177,247 in 2018. The main reason for the rise was the display of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Weeping Window poppies sculpture, originally displayed at the Tower of London in 2014.