Some museums are feeling the pinch now that Lottery money has opened up the market place. Elaine Williams wonders what the future may hold for a profusion of heritage sites all competing for visitors.
The new year has been a baptism of fire for the much-hyped Millennium Dome at Greenwich. Costing millions, it is now failing to attract anything like the number of punters it needs to break even. But it is not alone.
Last year several ambitious new projects were obliged to face the harsh economic reality of customer indifference. In spite of the wonders of modern technology, the crowds stayed away, which meant a cheerless new year for the Royal Armouries in Leeds (which has debts of pound;20 million) and for the Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which had to be bailed out of financial difficulties only months after it opened.
Sophie Sutherland, secretary to the National Museum Directors' Conference, admits there are real worries about what is going to happen over the next five years. "Millennium money has funded new institutions, some of which are going to get into trouble. There are too many competing visitor attractions."
The Government's U-turn on scrapping museum charges merely adds to the disquiet.
There are 2,500 museums and galleries in this country. Such has been the zeal to open new ones - one every two weeks since 1970 has been a popularly quoted statistic - that some have been bound to go to the wall. They are seen as powerful magnets to tourism, but motives for their establishment other than the cultural often prevail. It might be tourism, urban regeneration or job creation. Often it is a cocktail of all these. Clearly museums contribute to wider economic objectives, but they are not a magic formula in themselves.
According to Timothy Mason, director of the Museums and Galleries Commission, it is the quality of their collections that will secure the long-term future of these institutions.
He says: "There has been a lot of emphasis over the last five or 10 years on developing front-of-house visitor services and, yes, these are important. But in the last year or so we have also been reminding people that museums are about real objects that need to be cared for, well stored and well documented. If you don't get that core activity right then the front-of-house falls down.
"If museums neglect to care for their collections they are mortgaging their future. They will not be in a position to widen opportunities for access over the next 20 years."
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London experienced a slump in visitors after it introduced entrance charges, but visitors have risen steadily and now number a healthy 1.2 million a year. The museum has not forgotten, says Gail Durbin the Vamp;A's deputy head of education, that nobody else has, say, the Raphael cartoons, and that its unique collections remain its bedrock.
She believes the most successful museums are those that are crystal clear about who their audiences are and how they should be served. She says: "We don't just interpret access as providing more and more information, but as providing information at a level people can easily absorb; interpreting material so people can make use of it. There are lots of different kinds of learners, the practical, the imaginative, the analytical; we have to cater for all of these."
The Vamp;A is currently redisplaying its British galleries, the fruits of a five-year Lottery-funded project. Central to this has been the identification of eight audiences that might make use of the galleries: schools, further and higher education, families, local communities, ethnic minority groups, indepedent learners, specialists (both amateur and professional, from curators to devotees of The Antiques Roadshow) and foreign tourists. "We sat down and tried to identify what all of these different groups would need from a visit," says Ms Durbin, "and then set about trying to meet those needs. But we are very aware that central to our attraction are the real objects in our collection."
A former director of the Imperial War Museum once said that its very title represented an automatic turn-off to the uninitiated; that neither "imperial", "war" nor "museum" were obviously marketable concepts. Nevertheless the museum has been successful in hiking its visitor figures by finding ways of taking the theme of war and conflict in the 20th century and turning it into social history displays relevant to a wide range of people.
Its Forties fashion exhibition, for example, proved popular to lots of women who may never have thought of entering a museum of warfare. Another success, From the Bomb to the Beatles, looked at what has happened in Britain since the Second World War and showed how the Sixties would not have happened without it.
In the second edition of A Common Wealth: Museums in the Learning Age by David Anderson, the Vamp;A's head of education, key findings show that half of the population rarely or never uses museums and only one in five museums have an education specialist on their staff. This report, first published three years ago, shows there is still an enormous amount of work that museums can do to market their collections. Audience levels vary according to their effectiveness on this front.
The question is whether precious resources and funds would not be better spent widening access to, and strengthening, existing collections rather than pouring money into new ventures. This is something the Heritage Lottery Fund has taken on board by not funding totally new initiatives. Stuart Davies, its policy advisor to museums, says: "The danger is that new money tends to be attracted to new ventures. We have some of the finest collections in the world.
"We believe it is important to put resources into established collections so we can further unlock their potential in reaching the widest possible audiences."
TOP 10 MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES.
1. British Museum, London: 5,620,081.
2. National Gallery, London: 4,770,330.
3. Tate Gallery, London: 2,180,665.
4. Natural History Museum, London: 1,904,539 (right).
5. Science Museum, London: 1,599,817.
6. Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum: 1,128,455.
7. Victoria and Albert Museum, London: 1,110,000.
8. National Portrait Gallery, London: 1,017,265.
9. Royal Academy, London: 912,714.
10. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: 828,250.
TOP 10 HISTORIC HOUSES AND MONUMENTS.
1 Tower of London: 2,551,459.
2 Windsor Castle, Berkshire: 1,495,465.
3 Edinburgh Castle: 1,219,055.
4 Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath: 905,426.
5 Stonehenge, Wiltshire: 817, 493.
6 Warwick Castle: 777,500.
7 Hampton Court Palace, London: 605,230.
8 Leeds Castle, Kent: 551,377.
9 Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford: 520,108.
10 Chatsworth House, Derbyshire: 475,000.
* Alive with Learning: Study Support in Museums and Galleries, free (send SAE with 80p stamps) from Education Extra, 17 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PL.
Tel: 020 8709 9912.
A Common Wealth: Museums in the Learning Age by David Anderson for the Department for Culture Media and Sport, published by The Stationery Office, pound;14.99, from The Stationery Office, Publications Centre, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT.
Tel: 0870 600 5522.