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New database maps museums across the UK from 1960 to today

Birkbeck has launched the first longitudinal database of UK museums; revealing that the number of UK museums has more than tripled since 1960 due to the work of thousands of ordinary people.

Mapping museums

The museum sector in the UK has more than tripled in size since 1960, with numbers increasing from 1052 in 1960 to 3314 in 2015, according to a report and database recently published by Birkbeck, University of London. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the large-scale research project documented and analysed the growth and development of the UK museum sector between 1960 and 2020.  

Expansion was mainly driven by the foundation of independent museums: since 1960, their numbers have more than quadrupled and, as of 2017, independent museums made up 71.5% of the sector. The majority of the new museums are also small (defined as having fewer than 10,000 annual visits), and now make up 56% of the sector. The rising numbers of small independent museums point to the role of community and special interest groups in driving the museums boom. These groups set up their own museums that addressed topics important to them. The surge of local history museums is notable in this respect as they now account for almost a quarter of the UK sector. 

There is also considerable variation in growth and closure depending on location. In England, the South East region had the most museums in 1960, and the North East had the least; this still remains the case.  

In 2016 the number of closures outpaced the number of openings for the first time and since then the sector has contracted. In total, 758 museums closed between 1960 and 2017, which is 18.7% of the museums open during this period. In particular, the growth in the number of local authority museums slowed from the 1990s onwards. The assumption that museums survive and that they keep collections for posterity is misplaced.  

The project director, Professor Fiona Candlin, Professor of Museology at Birkbeck, said: 

“The museums boom should be celebrated. The diversity and extent of museums expanded dramatically, and in all kinds of interesting ways. At the same time, it is important to remember that the boom did not occur equally across all subject matters, or in all geographic areas. This has important implications for the way that our understanding of the sector in the present, the design of policy and how we set about further research on the sector going forward. 
“The more recent story of the museums boom is that in England and Scotland, the boom is for the moment over and, in Wales, growth is very slow. It is only in Northern Ireland that the numbers of museums continue to grow.” 

free to use database containing information on over 4,000 museums, resources linked to the project and links to the project publications can be found on the Mapping Museums website. 

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