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By Sir Ian Blatchford on

Summer at the Science Museum

With the start of the new school year, our Director reflects on positive summer visitor numbers for the museum.

As the new academic year kicks off, London’s big museums and the wider visitor economy are drawing breath and taking stock of a second COVID-impacted summer holiday. And there’s plenty to ponder, whether you see your glass half empty or half full.

For the doomsayers among you, the Science Museum’s total visits were down by around 45% in August compared to a pre-pandemic year and we continue to face considerable financial challenges.

But I’m an optimist, so I choose to celebrate the fact that the number of UK visitors coming to the Science Museum for a free dose of inspiration this August was back up to pre-pandemic levels. We welcomed a little under 200,000 visits last month, a little over a third of them from London and its immediate surrounds.

Just 1% were international tourists, a group that usually accounts for about half of our visits, which means the UK audience accounted for around 195,000, a figure we’d be delighted with in a ‘normal’ year.

Visitors looking at Tim Peake's Soyuz Capsule in Exploring Space gallery
Visitors looking at Tim Peake’s Soyuz Capsule in Exploring Space gallery

Indeed more would have come if we’d been able to accommodate them. But the Science Museum, like so many venues, took the decision to maintain our reduced capacities because of the pandemic.

Our own visitor feedback shows support for this approach – and this is reinforced by research carried out in August for the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

But that same research illustrates an uncomfortable split among the public. Around a quarter of culture fans would like to see venues lifting all COVID restrictions yet around 20% still don’t feel ready to visit a museum or art gallery because of the pandemic.

A family at the top of the friction slides within Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery
A family at the top of the friction slides within Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery

So as we head into the uncertainty of autumn, we all need to remember that confidence in getting back towards normal is by no means universal.

The research, conducted by Decision House, also shows some regional variation. Londoners are more ready to get back on the culture trail than many other parts of England and they are also more confident about using public transport than people in other regions, with 9 out of 10 prepared to board the capital’s overground trains and 8 out of 10 willing to use its buses and tubes.

With schools heading back and cooler weather pushing more of us indoors to socialise, there will no doubt be more bumps along this challenging road.

But it’s clear that Londoners regard culture as a non-negotiable aspect of the capital’s rich tapestry. For their part, cultural venues are doing a great job of listening to audiences and finding the right blend of additional safety measures that breed confidence without detracting from inspirational experiences.