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Post-Pandemic Museum Update

Bracha Arnold
June 20, 2023
Post-Pandemic Museum Update

With over 33,000 museums, the United States boasts the highest concentration of museums in the world – and within the country, New York City is particularly well known for its wealth of museums, which serve as important tourist attractions to the city. But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted museum visits, with many choosing to make their collections available virtually. Now, with the pandemic officially over, we check in with the foot traffic data to see how museums are faring in the new normal.

Year-over-Year Growth Patterns

Although the pandemic caused visits to all tourist attractions to plummet, the impact on museum foot traffic was particularly powerful. For most of 2021, museums lagged far behind theme parks, zoos, and aquariums in terms of COVID visit recovery as lingering restrictions continued limiting indoor visits and as many chose to stick to outdoor recreational activities even after museums opened back up. But now, year-over-year (YoY) foot traffic trends for museums nationwide and in Manhattan have been looking up, with monthly museum visits both nationwide and in Manhattan exceeding 2022 visit levels every month. Perhaps the relatively low cost of entry to museums – many offer discounted or free admission – is keeping visits above 2022 numbers for museums as consumers look for affordable outings. 

And while museum visitation trends in Manhattan and nationwide follow similar patterns, Manhattan museums are performing slightly better than the nationwide average, which could be due to the Big Apple’s post-COVID resurgence. The city’s unusually high cost of living may also mean that Manhattan tourists and residents are especially drawn to economical budget-friendly given the current economic environment. But the larger YoY increase in Manhattan museum visits could also be due to COVID’s uniquely heavy impact on Manhattan tourism – so the 2022 baseline for Manhattan museums may be lower than the nationwide baseline, which could be pushing the Manhattan YoY numbers up.

A Pre-Pandemic Comparison

Indeed, a year-over-four-year analysis (Yo4Y, comparing 2023 to 2019) reveals that May visits to museums in Manhattan and nationwide have yet to return to their pre-pandemic numbers. And on a Yo4Y basis, the Manhattan museum recovery is more closely aligned with the nationwide museum recovery – although the May Yo4Y museum visit gap in Manhattan was still slightly narrower than it was nationwide. 

The ongoing museum recovery is likely a combination of factors. It may be that the adoption of social media and online tours and an increase in other interactive entertainment during the pandemic are keeping would-be visitors at home. And some museums report a drop in school visits which, combined with a still-recovering domestic tourism rate, work to keep visits down. Still, people crave in-person experiences, and visits may pick up as people begin their summer vacations.

Demographic Shifts in Manhattan Museum Visitors

The similarity in nationwide and Manhattan museum visitation trends means that diving into Manhattan museums may offer some deeper insights into post-pandemic museum visit trends nationwide. Analyzing residents of the trade areas of the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History – three of the best known museums in the country – reveals a subtle shift in visitation habits that might indicate a wider trend for museums.

Between 2019 and 2022, the share of single-family households in the census blocks making up these three museums’ trade area increased. The share of trade area residents defined as “Educated Urbanites” by the Personalive dataset – high-income, highly educated young professionals who tend to be single – along with trade area median HHI also grew between 2019 and 2022. The demographic and psychographic shift in the trade areas of the three museums may indicate that museums are transitioning from a family-friendly, widely accessible activity to one that is geared more toward a highly educated, wealthy, single from NYC.

This change may also help explain why museum attendance is still below pre-pandemic levels. If fewer families and more singles are visiting museums – perhaps as families with children opt to take advantage of the growing number of options for child-friendly alternatives – visits are bound to go down. But the change in visitor demographics could also mean that the higher-income singles who are visiting museums in 2023 might be more willing to spend money at the gift shop or restaurant, which may help museums offset the drop in overall traffic.   

Going to The Museum

Museums are important civic institutions, blending art, culture, and history under one roof. And though the pandemic may have shifted the way people visit museums, the shift in visitor demographics suggests that museums are maintaining their relevance by finding new audiences.

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