June 25, 2013 10:52 pm

British Museum attracts record visitors in its 260-year history

Sculpture of a bison, around 10cm high, discovered at Zaraysk, Russia©Sang Tan

Sculpture of a bison, around 10cm high, discovered at Zaraysk, Russia

The British Museum has announced a record rise in its visitor numbers in the same week it expects to receive a £2m cut to its government funding in the spending review.

It registered the busiest May in its history, with admissions up 42 per cent on last year, contributing to record visitor numbers of 1.7m in the past three months.

The increase resulted from two blockbuster exhibitions: Ice Age Art , which drew 90,000 visitors compared to its target of 40,000; and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum , which met its six-month target of 250,000 visitors within three months of opening.

At its annual review on Tuesday, the museum said it had retained its crown as the most visited attraction in the UK for the sixth year running, with 5.57m visitors in 2012. The free-to-enter museum is on the itinerary of one in four overseas visitors to London, and one in 10 visitors to the UK.

Last week, the British Museum welcomed news that museums and arts bodies had been spared the worst of the cuts in the spending review, against feared reductions of 10 per cent or more. However, the 5 per cent reduction to the museum’s funding for 2015-16 comes on top of heavy cuts in the 2010 spending round.

Neil MacGregor, British Museum director, said the museum had not yet determined how it would address the expected £2m reduction to its budget but added: “There’s already a big cut of 24 per cent in this parliament so it’s another material squeeze.”

Niall FitzGerald, chairman of the trustees, described the headline settlement as “mildly encouraging”.

“The British Museum’s economic contribution to the UK cannot be in doubt,” he said.

The institution has been ramping up its broadcast and digital activities to reach mass audiences beyond its neoclassical premises in Bloomsbury. Last week a live screening event at the Pompeii exhibition was broadcast to 280 cinemas across the UK, drawing 35,000 viewers.

Its website was visited by more than 14m last year, a 19 per cent rise on the previous year.

It is also in the advanced stages of a £135m building project to create a conservation and exhibitions centre at its north west corner. Over half of the funding for the centre has been raised from private sources, such as the Linbury and Monument Trusts, and the museum’s reserves, though one-fifth of the cost remains to be raised.

The new gallery will open in March 2014 with an exhibition on the Vikings, featuring the remains of a 37m longship.

The museum has been heavily promoting its membership scheme, which has achieved 60,000 members, a fivefold increase over the past seven years.

Such schemes are being pursued by many cultural institutions as a means of boosting self-generated income. One of the oldest, the fundraising charity ArtFund, announced on Tuesday it had reached 100,000 members, generating £4.1m of its £11m annual income, up 45 per cent since 2007.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “The UK public is among the most generous anywhere, consistently ranking among the top 5 or 10 countries for charitable giving.”

Organisations outside London, however, are seen as more vulnerable than those in the capital. Last week the Museums Association warned that museums across the UK were reaching a “tipping point” on cuts, where the essential costs of buildings maintenance would hit public access to collections.

Mark Taylor, director, said: “We risk having the world’s largest collection of white elephants up and down the country with museums either closed or unable to deliver adequate levels of service.”

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