Not even the rain during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations could dampen the impression that in 2012 the UK was creative, historic, inquisitive, beautiful, friendly, and had a sense of humour. Culture, including science and the arts, is now undoubtedly one of this country’s greatest exports. It’s not just a feeling I have; recent research by the British Council has shown that the view of the UK abroad now is extremely positive.

Museums are fundamental to this positive view of the UK abroad, and also the view of the UK by its own residents. From the those who enjoy a break from shopping with lunch in its Tiled Hall Café and a wander round Leeds City Art Gallery, to the wide-eyed wonder of small children when they see the Diplodocus in the Central Hall at the Natural History Museum for the first time, to the international tourist who heads straight to the National Gallery, our museums are valued by those who visit them – and visitors are coming in greater numbers than ever before. The V&A has reported 3 million visitors for the first time, my own museum, the Natural History Museum, welcomed a record 5 million visitors and Tate have announced an all-time high of 5.3m visitors to Tate Modern. These are extra-ordinary achievements reflecting how much people value culture.

A key enabler of this popularity is the Government policy of free admission to national museums, and the similar policies adopted by local authorities and independent museums throughout the UK. I am pleased that the maintenance of this successful policy was mentioned in the Coalition Government’s recent Mid-Term Review. Free admission has broadened access amongst UK citizens and, I would argue, increased the attractiveness of visiting the UK for those living overseas. The most recent readings from the DCMS Taking Part Survey show that 5 million more adults now visit museums than in 2006/07. Consequently, seven out of the top ten visitor attractions in the UK are museums. Since 2002, there has been a 27% increase in the number of overseas tourists visiting the UK, and in the same period the number of overseas visitors to the Natural History Museum has increased by 139%. Museums have become a very important driver of the tourism economy. There are more visits from people living locally and in the UK too: five years ago the Natural History Museum saw 20,000 visitors in a day maybe once or twice a year. Last year this happened on 33 occasions.

As I approach the end of my 4 years as Chair of the NMDC, I cannot help but compare 2013 to 2009. Yes, museums have become more popular, we have seen stunning new museum developments such as those in Edinburgh at the National Museum Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and here at the NHM with the Darwin Centre, and the view of the UK overseas has never been so positive. However, it is also a more difficult funding climate than even the most pessimistic of us might have envisaged in April 2009. Most national museums are managing 18% funding cuts over the life of this spending period, but some local authority-funded museums are facing much worse. This of course means painful choices and the curtailing of some ambitions. The health of the museum sector relies on maintaining support at every level. For our part we have to articulate the positive impact we have and maximise the impact of the resources available to us by grasping the opportunity that 2012 has presented to better position UK culture internationally and produce a lasting legacy.

Despite the current harsh financial climate, museums are increasingly relevant and vibrant parts of communities and the people of this country value their contribution in many ways. In difficult economic circumstances for many families, museums represent a vital source of informal learning and a really good day out. But this is a tenuous position. The UK has the benefit of internationally important museums whose performance and reputation is the envy of many overseas. Maintaining investment in museums is vital to retain free admission and the competitive advantage our great institutions enjoy and which the UK needs.

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