The statistics suggest that these new-look museums are doing something right. Globally, numbers have burgeoned from around 23,000 two decades ago to at least 55,000 now. In 2012 American museums received 850m visitors, says the American Alliance of Museums. That is more than all the big-league sporting events and theme parks combined. In England over half the adult population visited a museum or gallery in the past year, the highest share since the government began collecting such statistics in 2005. In Sweden three out of four adults go to a museum at least once a year (though not all Europeans are equally keen). The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most popular museum, had 10m visitors last year, 1m more than in 2011. China will soon have 4,000 museums—still only a quarter the number in America, but it is racing to catch up.
On the face of it, that success seems surprising. People now have more choices than ever before in how to spend their leisure. Many travel to see the world, but mostly the world comes to them, often via television and the internet, conveniently delivered to their laptops or smartphones. So why would they want to traipse round museums if most of the stuff they can see there is available at the click of a mouse?