I have written a number of times here about the issue of museum admission charges. Because of the nature of most of these articles, it can come across as being critical of any museum that does not charge. This is not the case at all though & I agree with much of the content of the article posted below.
So – lets get it straight. Free museums are great.
However, perhaps we need to accept that not all museums have to be free. We have free museums in Britain, because that is the way that we do things & how our government has chosen to spend our taxes (because, without this, very few of them would still be free). This means, that we should not therefore refer in a critical way to museums that charge, as though they are somehow less worthy.
This all gets back to the arguments over the Parthenon Marbles. The British Museum has often stated something along the lines of “the collection was legally acquired from Lord Elgin and is accessible, free of charge, to millions of visitors”.
I think it is critical to look at this statement carefully bit by bit – afterall, the number of times the British Museum has trotted it out, we assume that some thought must have gone into it.
So – we have part 1: “legally acquired from Lord Elgin”. Clearly this is true, because Elgin went through a process of selling them to the British Government (although, perhaps this ought to be described as transferring ownership in exchange for cancellation of debts, as this is closer to what happened). This statement is somewhat economical with the truth – it does not delve further back, into how the Marbles came into Elgin’s ownership & the legality / legitimacy of this procedure. Furthermore, if one accepts that Elgin did not acquire them entirely legitimately, then in effect, Britain was involved in the purchase of stolen goods.
Part 2: “Accessible, free of charge”. This argument is put forward as though it is clearly a positive point, but relatively little discussion has been made on why this should be the case. We must assume that this part of the statement refers to the fact that the Acropolis Museum, in common with most Greek archaeological sites & museums has an admission charge – although, we should also note that the charge for the museum is relatively minimal – few people would be put off visiting it purely by the admission charge. This admission charge helps to fund the building & the care of the collection within it. Bearing in mind the current economic situation in Greece, I don’t think anyone would suggest that they should be spending their public funds on removing their museum admission charges.
Part 3: “to millions of visitors”. Once again, an argument is put forward without clear reasoning why the point being made is beneficial. Surely if maximising the numbers who could see it were the most important factor, then relocating the marbles to Beijing or Mumbai should be considered? Furthermore, this does not stop to consider the fact that without admission charges, the British Museum no longer has a clear idea of visitor numbers. The give an approximate total count, but because anyone can wander in & out of a building with multiple entrances, we do not really know the nature of these visits. One thing I can guarantee, is that not all these people are there to see the Marbles – there are people using the route through as a shortcut on a rainy day, meeting someone at the cafe in the Great Court, visiting a temporary exhibition, or just looking at another specific part of the museums collection. On the other hand, we could assume that for the majority of visitors to the Acropolis Museum, seeing the sculptures from the Acropolis is the main focus of their visit. From this, we can only conclude that using visitor numbers as an argument is at best misleading, without more detail to back it up.
So – free admission is great, but is it really a justification for hanging onto the Parthenon Marbles? I don’t think so.
Monday 11 March 2013
Free museums – a fine example to set the world
Published on Saturday 9 March 2013 00:00
AS MUCH as it pains me to say it, the commitment to free entry to national museums, instigated by the last Labour government, is one policy that I not only support, but think was enlightened.
Back in 1997, Labour argued that in order to broaden the range of people visiting museums and galleries, there should be no charge to visit. Up until then, entrance fees could set you back between £5-10 a person, which adds up, especially if you want to take the whole family, or go more than once, which, given that most of the institutions are large and extensive, is likely.
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