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Making museums more attractive

The number of tourists visiting Malta over the past three years has steadily increased to record levels. Visitors to Malta’s museums, monuments and sites, however, have perversely been steadily decreasing. This doesn’t seem logical.

A larger tourist market should surely have led to increased numbers. Why has it not done so?

In the four years between 2008 and 2011, the number of visitors to all museums and historical sites has dropped by about 380,000, from a high in 2008 of over 2.26 million to 1.88 million.

A rough analysis of the main categories of museums and historical sites presents a patchy picture. Whereas visitors to the natural history and science museums have remained broadly stable and those to the ethnology and anthropology museums, and the military and maritime museums have increased (in the military museums’ case quite substantially), the number of visitors to the art, archaeology and history museums and the monuments and sites has decreased substantially.

Since 2008, art museum visitor numbers are down 23 per cent, archaeology and history museums down 17 per cent, and monuments and site admissions have been reduced by 18 per cent.

The problem is that the drop in numbers has been felt in the categories – art museums, archaeology and history museums, and monuments and sites – which account for the large majority of visitor admissions: 1.64 million visitors out of the total of 1.88 million admissions at all museum and historic sites.

The finger appears to point firmly at the sites owned and managed by Heritage Malta, the Government’s cultural heritage agency, as the growing source of the problem.

The Labour spokesman on culture has laid the blame at the Government’s (ie Heritage Malta’s) charging policy and specifically the increase in fees in 2010. There may be some truth in this.

Charges for entry at all Heritage Malta’s sites and museums have been imposed as a means of ensuring that Heritage Malta pays its way as a government agency. This is the method used by many other such agencies all over Europe (for example, English Heritage), although many countries also offer free or subsidised admission to all publicly-owned sites and museums.

This comes at a cost to public expenditure, which any minister of finance in Malta – of whatever political hue – is bound to question. Last year income to all museums and sites (not simply Heritage Malta sites) was €13 million while expenditure was just over €12 million – thus, barely making a profit.

Many of the museums and historic sites, the latter especially, are capable of offering excellent visitor experiences – think of the Hypogeum, and many of the unique Neolithic temple sites – and should therefore be able to attract both high visitor numbers and an exciting experience.

That numbers have reduced may well be a reflection either that the entry fees have been pitched too high (especially for Maltese visitors), or that the sites are not considered to be good value for money.

Heritage Malta must draw some crucial lessons from the steep slide in admission figures of the last few years.

It seems clear that it must re-examine its charging policy. But it must also strive to improve the overall visitor experience, and its branding and marketing policies.

With the European Capital of Culture 2018 now taking shape, there is a real incentive to ensure this aspect of Malta’s tourism product is greatly improved and becomes both more competitive and more attractive to visitors.

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