Is There a Decline in Museum Attendance?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

March 25, 2020

If you were to ask a museum professional if they thought museum attendance was declining, they’d likely say yes. We’ve all heard anecdotes about museums and visitor engagement, and seen the headlines pointing out the precarity of museums.

Certainly, there are museums closing or selling art to survive. However, the evidence is sparse and it is nuanced.

In the National Endowment for the Art’s 2002-2015 report there is a stated decline in art museum attendance of approximately 20%. This calculation factors in two important contextual elements: 1. The drop in attendance numbers is specific to art museums; and 2. The decline is calculated in relation to the general population increase—so the number of attendees may not look as bad until put into the context of the population growth rate of the last decade.

Let’s get into these two contextual elements…

1. Art Museums Make Up Too Little of the Total Number of Museums to be Representative

The oft-quoted report for museum decline is NEA’s report—a report tracking performing arts and art-specific galleries or museums. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services art museums make up only 4.5% of museums, with 55.5% being history-based, and the remaining 33% identifying as general, or plant and animal based. It’s impossible to reliably use attendance statistics for 4.5% of museums to discuss what the attendance picture looks like for 100% of museums and there is no similar survey that covers history-based museums. Also note that the popular NEA report covers 2002-2012 and was published in 2015. We’re working with numbers that even at their most recent in 2012 are still 8-years (as of this writing) out of date. The truth is we need more inclusive numbers to work with and we need more frequent surveys and reports.

If we’re looking at examples for history-based museums there are statistics that don’t support the “museum attendance is in decline” narrative. For example, a National Trust for Historic Preservation survey (as reported in this HYPERALLERGIC article) reports that 62% (of 507 responses) report an increase in visitor attendance. (It is unknown if they took population growth into account). Attendance reports from individual museums and at the state level also report that some museums are thriving while others have noticed steep decline. Right now, the only thing we can say for sure is that the “museums are in decline” narrative is based on too little information and whatever anecdotal information we have on hand.

2. The Numbers Might Not Look So Bad Until You Factor in the Rate of Growth for the Population

Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development, found that: “For every one historic [museum] visitor who leaves the US market (by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by only 0.948 of a person.” In reviewing the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (conducted 2011-2015) Dilenschneider points out (in this article) that millennials are already the largest share of cultural organization visitors with attendance increasing year after year. But, as Dilenschneider points out, millennials are not at expected levels within the context of population growth for their age demographic.

The Challenges Involved

So, what does this mean? Professionals concerned about museums and visitor engagement agree that first of all, we need more data, we need it collected more consistently, and we need it more frequently than every 5 to 10 years. However, data collection is very expensive and the museum field is one with a vast diversity of types of organizations—with the almost universal problem of not having enough cash to fund the studies themselves. Usually these studies come out of national (and federally funded) organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. But, because they are federally funded that means their budget can vary based upon which political party is in power and the priorities set for the federal budget. These studies are too often the casualty of tight budgets and inability (purposeful or not) to prioritize funding for these national studies.


Museums in attendance decline have a serious concern and the pervasiveness of attendance decline is one that needs to be further examined to identify the full extent. What is causing attendance downturn for some museums and an increase in others? If there are national trends in attendance downturn, we need to pay attention to these canaries in the coal mine. And for museums doing well, we need to explore what it is that’s working. It’s not going to be as simple as “Millennials don’t go to museums”. As Dilenschneider’s work points out, that statement is categorically untrue. While there are no quick answers here, one action you can take right away is to write to your congressional representatives and urge them to support healthy budgets for our federally funded agencies. In the US that includes: National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Historical Records and Publications Commission.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and download your free copy of Rachael’s latest book from Lucidea Press, How to Select, Buy, and Use a Museum CMS

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