top of page
  • Writer's picturemaxwell museums

Bernard Donoghue, ALVA Director, interview: where are the visitors?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Bernard Donoghue OBE is the Director of ALVA, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. ALVA have just released their annual visitor figures from their 349 members — and the results were a mixed bag.

First the good news: UK museums and galleries reported a surge in visits in 2022 — up 158% on the pandemic-ravaged year before which saw most venues shut for months. And that was above the 118% average increase seen by the wider visitor attraction sector.

Now the bad news: this was still way down on the numbers pre-covid. Visits in 2022 were nearly a quarter below those enjoyed in 2019. That’s a lot of missing revenue for museums, galleries, gardens, cathedrals, zoos and more. The reasons for the disappointing numbers were blamed on the perfect storm of Covid, Brexit, energy prices and cost of living crisis.

To get the full picture of what this latest data means for museums, galleries and other tourist attractions, maxwell museums speaks to Bernard Donoghue to get his take the past 12 months, and what the future holds for the rest of 2023.

In this wide-ranging chat, we cover everything from ALVA's purpose, to why museums have a “moral” challenge to increase diversity if they were bailed out by the taxpayer in the pandemic. And he tells me how the musical-chairs of government ministers has made his job that much more difficult.

— Become a museum and gallery insider with the maxwell museums newsletter


Hello Bernard. How would you sum up 2022 for visitor attractions?

Optimistic, with encouraging significant growth in visitor numbers compared to 2021 but still down 23%, on average, compared to 2019. We always said that tourism was hit first, hit hardest and would take the longest to recover — especially those attractions which were usually dependent on overseas visitors — and that has proved to be the case. And of course, the cost of living crisis has also had an effect in making people think hard, and tactically, about how they spend their leisure cash and leisure hours.

The ALVA figures showed that the Natural History Museum came out on top as the most visited museum in Britain for the second year running. Why do you think it's so popular?

It's always been hugely popular and I think it's never complacent about its attractiveness so it puts a lot of effort into its programming, especially family programming. I love it — for me it's the cathedral of science.

The twin towers of the facade of the museum with a cloudy sky backdrop
The Natural History Museum in London

We're exactly three years on from the start of the pandemic, and visitor numbers still lag pre-pandemic figures. Will there ever be a full recovery for the sector?

Yes. We are a creative, hard-working and resilient sector, but it's time to think hard and critically about the kind of recovery that we want. I've spent a lot of time over the last 18 months with trustee boards and senior staff teams urging them not to default back to 2019 business practices, ambitions, ways of doing things and corporate behaviours. They need to embrace the things we have learned over the last 3 years — risk-taking, more agile decision-making , emphasising and exhibiting social purpose and values — and to recover better, greener, more equitably, serving and welcoming the diversity of our communities.

What’s ALVA's purpose?

Principally we are an advocacy body for our members, and the broader attractions and tourism sectors. We bring our members together to share insights, case studies, best practice, and to learn from industry and external experts. We have groups of Heads of HR, finance, fundraising, membership, education and learning, public engagement, security etc etc who all meet together every six months to learn from each other. We also commission visitor sentiment research which, during COVID, we shared free of charge with all the sector, beyond our membership, along with daily bulletins from me on latest Government advice, rules, our representations and advice.

What’s your relationship with the UK government?

I work closely with all the governments of the UK, advising them on the issues affecting our sector, the importance of attractions and the experience economy to tourism, culture, arts, mental and physical health and wellbeing and economic growth. I am a member of the UK Government's tourism council, representing attractions and the cultural sector, and lobby and liaise with Ministers from across Whitehall and in the devolved administrations.

This month’s UK Budget: was it good or bad for the tourism sector in UK?

Tax relief for theatres, museums and orchestras was a great win and is warmly welcomed, but the greatest current threat to the economic sustainability of tourism businesses are energy costs. I also would have loved to see Government recognition that we need a fresh approach to economic migration recognising that our sector lost a lot of workers in the wake of Brexit and COVID, and that recruitment — especially in catering, front of house, food and beverage, security and cleaning — is a serious challenge and that without our full complement of workers we are operating sub-optimally.

There have been twelve different Culture Secretaries in the UK government in twelve years. How has this instability affected the sector?

That's correct and there’s been 4 tourism ministers from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport since September last year. It's deeply, deeply frustrating and almost impossible to establish a useful and rich relationship and rapport with Ministers who are in post so briefly. It doesn't have to be this way, there's not the same turnover in culture and tourism ministers in Scotland for example, where tourism is proportionally a larger contributor to the national GDP or the economy.

How difficult will 2023 be for attractions?

We still face challenging times, especially with energy costs. And our members are paying off COVID loans and repairing their balance sheets just at a time when visitors are often cutting back on their leisure expenditure and days out. But we've seen very clearly that attractions which put a lot of effort and investment into programming are faring well — people want to be wooed and enticed to visit and revisit, and they’re looking for high value, special, memorable experiences. Since lockdown ended we have seen people want to spend special time with special people in special places — and to create memories. They — we — are all still healing, and the role our sector plays in providing spaces and experiences to breathe, heal, repair and recover is hugely important, and appreciated.

Bernard standing on the streetscape set in front of the facade of the Rovers Return
Bernard Donoghue OBE, Director of ALVA, on the set of Coronation Street

What recent innovations or projects have you seen in museums and galleries that really impresses you?

I've been very impressed with those museum and gallery trustee boards and senior management teams who have taken a fresh look at their cash reserves policies — if they have reserves left — and are asking questions such as how can we make them work for us, how can we invest them creatively and with social purpose?

I have been prompting organisations to think hard and critically about ensuring that the audiences that they now welcome are different from those that they closed their doors to in March 2020. For them to be more inclusive, more diverse, more representatives of the communities in which the museum sit. If you’re a cultural organisation and were sustained and bailed out by the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund — which was taxpayer’s money — and your visitor profile doesn't look like the taxpayer base of your locality, you have a moral and ethical challenge. Not having visitors who are as diverse as your community erodes your political and social licence to operate.

What's your favourite museum and why?

I'm entirely biased as I chair the board of the People's History Museum in Manchester. It's a brilliant place and a confident activist and campaigning museum. We tell the stories of people power, collective action, the fights for personal, political, sexual, employment and equality rights, the fights against discrimination and for social justice, and we take inspiration from our stories and collection in how we work and partner, especially in our co-curation work with communities. We were very proud to be shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year last year.

And I love Charleston, near Lewes in East Sussex, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and the sanctuary of the wider Bloomsbury group. It's full of art, stories, unconventional people living unconventional lives in a beautiful setting and a brilliant programme of exhibitions and events. Good shop too.

What new cultural offers are you most excited for this year?

Everything that the Bristol Old Vic is presenting (another bias); the National Portrait Gallery reopening; the reopening and re-presentation of Young V&A; I saw the new galleries at Titanic Belfast last week and they are extraordinary; anything that the Burrell does; I want to see the new tartan exhibition at V&A Dundee. And Eurovision, naturally. I can only apologise in advance for anyone who follows me on Twitter, I get quite excited.


bottom of page