Addressing the museum attendance and benefit gap: inequality, representative participation and implementation science

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Museum Studies


This Network brings social and health science scholars into dialogue with museum scholars, leaders and policy makers to create a sustainable research agenda focused on the museum attendance and benefit gap. The network will draw in scholars with expertise in inequality, poverty and low educational attainment, experts in culture and health, public health, health and cultural attendance, and scholars of implementation science with expertise in rigorous approaches to intervention development and harnessing research for large-scale change. The Network explores the hypothesis that a deeper understanding within museums and museology of (1) the nature and experience of inequality and (2) how large-scale social and behaviour change is approached in fields such as health, will open up the capacity to understand, theorise, design, implement, evaluate and sustain practices which may address the museum attendance and benefit gap.

Data from the official Taking Part Survey, which includes the attendance gap between Upper and Lower Socio-economic Groups in England, show that it has increased from 22.7 percentage points (pp) to 24.7pp over the past 15 years. The same pattern is evident in the rest of the UK. Sociologically, museum visiting reflects the socio-economic gradient, closely tracking inequalities in education, income, employment, mental health and other indicators of social wellbeing. This analysis is supported by decades of research in cultural sociology internationally which, regardless of methodological or theoretical approach, confirms that people who participate in and benefit from state-sponsored cultural forms including museums, are, in the main, from upper socio-economic groups and that the single most important predictor of museum visiting is not class, ethnicity or income but level of prior educational achievement. Population-level studies in the epidemiology of culture, which tell us that simply visiting a museum may have positive health benefits, emphasises the lack of fairness in the current distribution of cultural resources and the way museums reflect and contribute to established inequalities in health and wellbeing.

Despite 40 years of concerted efforts by museums of all genres and scales, supported by national and local government policy and targeted investment, including more than £5 billion of Lottery Funding, the strategies used by museums in the UK to reduce inequalities in museum visiting are not working. Whilst pockets of positive transformation have been achieved, museums have failed to find ways to understand, consolidate, share and sustain progress. Focused on measuring small-scale impact and without an evaluation framework linking the activities of individual museums and the ways in which they utilise visitor research with the macro data from surveys like the Taking Part Survey or with the sociological literature on inequality, museums' current uses of research cannot offer insights into the larger question of representative participation.

To begin to positively impact deeply entrenched and unequal patterns of attendance and benefit and make credible claims about their contribution to society, museums need to understand the extent to which the attendance and benefit gap is driven by societal factors, which museum interventions are most likely to have an impact, and how they can harness and grow their research capacity to move beyond 'intuitive' approaches to inequality and social change.

The new partnerships and synergies the Network will generate are urgent: increasing inequality, the long-term impact of post-2011 austerity, and the dramatic impacts of COVID and new technologies are changing patterns of visiting, often in ways that increase inequalities. As the cultural sector seems likely to face a new round of austerity, having a clearer, more realistic, understanding of how museums might make a greater and more transparent contribution to society will be invaluable.


10 25 50