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Is having free admissions to museums more important than all else?

The British Museum regularly props up its defence [1] for the retention of the Elgin Marbles with the fact that the sculptures can be seen in their museum free of charge, without any real debate a to whether this is necessarily a universally good thing. As budgets for government spending are cut in the UK, more & more questions must be asked about whether these institutions should keep their free admission, or charge visitors (which doesn’t necessarily need to be a large amount).

Evening Standard [2]

British Museum reduces opening hours as budget cuts begin to bite
Louise Jury, Chief Arts Correspondent

The British Museum is to reduce its opening hours from January to cope with government budget cuts.

Late-night opening to the permanent collections will be axed on Thursdays and restricted to one evening a week — Fridays. Staff recruitment will be “significantly reduced”.

Spending on refreshments for internal meetings has been halted immediately and staff are being asked for money-saving ideas, according to a memo leaked to the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Other proposals include a massive recruitment drive for new museum supporters, restrictions on telephone and BlackBerry use, and a cost-conscious effort to go green.

Like other national institutions, the museum was hit by a three per cent cut, totalling £1.8 million, after the May general election — when it was already too late to change the exhibition programme. Immediate action included deferring building work and reducing the acquisitions budget.

Director Neil MacGregor warned that opening hours — and even the cherished free admission — were under review. The museum has been free to enter since it was established in 1753.

The new plans are in expectation of “a long-term reduction of grant-in-aid” after next month’s government spending review. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This is direct evidence that, even before the big cuts have been announced, important services to the public are being hit and managers clearly expect worse to come.

“It is essential our cultural life is protected and the universal access provided by free admission is maintained to prevent the arts returning to being a privilege only the wealthy can enjoy.” The PCS is campaigning against cuts.

A museum spokeswoman said: “It is our intention to try to minimise disruption to the six million visitors who come here each year. However the planned response to the budget cut will inevitably have an impact on the visitor.” Prearranged Thursday night bookings will be honoured, she added.

But when late-night opening goes to one day a week it will include all museum galleries, as opposed to only some of them under the current regime. Late-night opening is until 8.30pm.

Evening Standard [3]

Why should museums be exempt? We must pay
Brian Sewell

Britain’s National Museums — the British, the V&A, the Imperial War et al, together with our various National Galleries of art — confirmed last week that between them they mustered more than 42 million visitors in the year 2009-10.

This is a formidable and encouraging rise since the abolition of admission charges in 2001.

The National Maritime Museum claims an increase of 197 per cent, the Natural History Museum 159 per cent, and the Museums of Liverpool 178 per cent. Our response should be “Whoopee!” and all who fought for free admission when many Labour politicians damned art galleries as elitist should be in a mood of euphoric self-congratulation.

I was passionately one of them, but am no longer, for I cannot see why museum visitors should be exempt from the uncomfortable changes we now face in other aspects of our lives. Why should we not pay for admission, at least for the lifetime of this government?

I do not accept the argument that any benefit will be wiped out by the cost of electronic equipment and the appointment of administrative staff. Charging should involve only the installation of mechanical turnstiles which, with the insertion of a £1 coin in the slot, will admit one visitor, old, young, able or infirm. The only administration then required is the counting of coins and the occasional squirt of WD40 if any turnstile groans.

Think of it: 42 million visitors means £42 million, almost enough to buy a major Titian every year and probably enough to fund a major annual exhibition in every institution. What is £1? — a bottle of water, perhaps a cup of tea, but certainly not a cup of coffee. How much of a seat at a football match will it buy, how much of a seat at the Olympics?

It is now a sum so small that even a pre-pubertal child can afford to give it to a beggar. Yet for £1 we all could see the Elgin Marbles, every aspect and artefact of the Italian Renaissance or the empty-headed rubbish of the millionaire artists of today.

Turnstiles would also tell us the simple truth about visitor numbers. I do not believe the published figures. I question the accuracy of electronic counters as much as the accuracy of clickers clicked by guardians at the door. Who or what could possibly count the crowds constantly mobbing the great portico of the British Museum?
The National Gallery has five entrances, one through the café, another always overwhelmed by school parties — and they count with clickers?

Tate Modern’s café is too full of local workers who treat it as a canteen, and these are electronically counted as visitors to the Gallery. The only reliable figures are ticket sales for exhibitions but even these are falsified by the estimated addition of perhaps 100,000 Friends and the friends accompanying them.

The figures are concocted for political argument; they “prove” that more people visit museums than football matches — ergo museums must be more cosseted and subsidised. But to a wildly misleading measure they are figments of each institution’s fervid imagination.

We should ignore them, install turnstiles and demand £1.