September 29, 2009

The benefits (or otherwise) of free museum admission

Posted at 12:58 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The British Museum makes much of the fact that the Elgin Marbles can be seen there free of charge, It remains unclear though whether this is really such a good thing as it is portrayed as being. Certainly, the museums are opened up to more people when they do not charge, but unless one lives within walking distance of them or is already in London, there are costs (sometimes significant) in getting to the museum in the first place. The focus on admission charges skims over any other questions about what the visitor experience is really like – is the cost everything? This is an argument that definitely has more than one side to it.

And finally – as many will probably have spotted, the headline of the article suggesting that its costs five Euros to view the Elgin Marbles in Athens is completely wrong. Not only is the actual admission charge for the New Acropolis Museum only one Euro. But the Parthenon Sculptures there are very definitely not the Elgin Marbles (this claim could possibly be made about those in the British Museum – but those remaining in Athens have never passed through Lord Elgin’s hands).


A fiver for the Elgin marbles, anyone?
Only in Britain are all the national museums and galleries free – it is time to show our gratitude
Ian Jack
Saturday 26 September 2009

Britain can still be a remarkably free country – free as in “goods and services provided without money changing hands”. Last week I went to see a doctor and a hospital consultant, got prescription drugs from a chemist, entered the British Museum and the National Gallery, travelled between all these people and places by bus and tube, and not once did my hand go into my pocket to retrieve anything more than a travel pass. Age (the travel pass) was only a minor cause of this free-ness. The rest of it – the close inspection of the Portland Vase at the museum, the sophisticated medical treatment, the special Corot to Monet exhibition in the gallery – would have been as free to a British citizen of any age, and the cultural part free to a citizen of any nationality. In this way British public taxation and private philanthropy have removed the financial barriers to the repair of both body and soul. This is perhaps a rather earnest perspective, to be disputed by the queues in A and E and people with no feeling for old vases, but there’s nothing like adjacent visits to a hospital and museum to make you feel the truth of it.

The combination of free medicine and free art and history may be unique. Other countries in Europe may well have better health services that are just as free at the point of delivery; none, so far as I can tell, lets you into important cultural collections without demanding money. It costs €8 (£7.35) to see Nefertiti at Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, €9 to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, €6 to see Las Meninas at the Prado or the Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. Countries with reputations for lavish social provision are no cheaper and neither are those with a historic interest in equality. Entry to Sweden’s National Museum is 100 kronor (£9), while the Hermitage in St Petersburg will take 300 roubles (£6.20) before you can clap eyes on Matisse’s sprightly Dance. Farther abroad, it’s the same story. New York’s big museums charge $20 (£12.50) a head, and the Indian Museum in Kolkata wants 150 rupees (£1.95). The shining exception is the Smithsonian in Washington; but don’t fall down the stairs into the expensive hands of American medicine.

Read the brochures to these institutions and you see universal assent to the hard-to-prove proposition that art does people good and therefore must be made available as cheaply as possible to the less wealthy or most impressionable. Many museums have free nights. Most offer free access to the young and reduced prices to the old. Native citizens are given special privileges. An Indian visiting the Indian Museum pays only 10 rupees. At the Hermitage, citizens of the Russian Federation are asked for only 100 roubles, and those who can avoid payment completely form a formidable list. Students of all nationalities; Russian soldiers and sailors; members of the unions of artists, architects and designers; retired Russian citizens; Heroes of the Soviet Union, Heroes of Socialist Labour; holders of the medal “Defender of Leningrad”: all of them can see Matisse and Gainsborough and Monet for absolutely nothing, and if somehow a Russian fits none of these categories he or she can surely pose as a member of the final one – “parents with many children”.

Britain stands apart from all this rigmarole. Other than for temporary exhibitions, none of its 19 national collections sells tickets and hundreds of smaller museums and galleries are also free. When the Conservatives introduced admission charges in the 1980s, visitor numbers fell steeply in almost every charging institution apart from the Imperial War Museum, and rose equally sharply in those museums that remained free. Today the experiment is seen as a catastrophe – not economically but socially, by restricting access to those who could afford to pay and reducing art’s educational or uplifting effect on the general population. Such effects aren’t easily quantifiable, and free entry can be hard to defend rationally. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew may be more inspiring to many people than the National Gallery, for example, but they charge £13 to get in; and Battleship Potemkin, arguably as artful as the Rokeby Venus, is the price of a ticket at the BFI. A better argument may be Neil MacGregor’s, director of the British Museum, an institution that bills itself as a world collection that is freely open to the world’s population. As a strategy, MacGregor attracts sponsorship and defends his museum against charges that it’s filled with things that might, or should, be somewhere else. You can come to London and see the Elgin marbles for nothing; at the new Parthenon Museum in Athens you’ll pay €5 not to see them.

How did Britain develop its almost singular belief that museums should be free? The answer lies most probably in the British Museum’s parliamentary foundation in the Enlightenment as a collection freely accessible “to all studious and curious persons … native and foreign born” in an age when other European assemblies of art and antiquities were kept imprisoned by kings and princes for their own pleasure. Many more public museums and 250 years later, the result is that free admission has become entwined with the idea of public ownership. According to Andrew Macdonald, acting director of The Art Fund: “People think, ‘How can it be mine, if you’re charging me to see it?'”

The next government is thought unlikely to interfere with the principle of free admission but this is the Age of Cuts and kites may already be flying. In New York this week, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, was impressed by the example of the Metropolitan, a theoretically free museum that dresses up its $20 admission charge as a voluntary contribution (in a dozen visits it has never occurred to me that I didn’t have to pay). Johnson thought that London museums could adopt the technique.

This would be sad: the Met’s idea of a voluntary contribution is a mugger’s version of his victim’s free will. And the fact is that visitors to British museums have been putting money into donation boxes for years. Last year, for example, they contributed £350,000 to the British Museum’s £50m income by stuffing notes and coins into boxes that have a suggested tariff attached – £3, $5, €5 – under a slogan “Free to the world since 1753”. Loitering in the foyer, I saw 15 visitors give money in 15 minutes as another 150 walked past. Last year the museum had 5.5 million visitors. Museums and British taxpayers aren’t there to be thanked; even so, the gratitude seemed insufficient.

To preserve our finest museums and avoid the Met’s strong-arm methods, visitors need to be persuaded to give more from what’s known as the goodness of their hearts. Sitting in the British Museum’s entrance hall watching hundreds freely come and go, I dipped into my pocket and surprised myself by thinking that Boris was right.

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  1. Daniel said,

    09.30.09 at 6:01 am

    You state it remains unclear if free admission is such a good thing? Now you have lost me here. How can it not be a good thing? Also you argue that the guardian article missleads people by claiming that the admission charge at the Acropolis Museum is five euros and state that the admission is only one euro. Someone of your expertise on this matter should know that the one euro charge is only for the first year of opening. After that it will most definately be five euros!

  2. Matthew said,

    09.30.09 at 12:41 pm

    The admission is currently only one euro – not 5 euros. It did not state anything about what it will be in the future.

    The fact remains though that if Greeks currently want to see the Elgin Marbles, the journey to London to see them will cost many times more than one (or five) Euros for them to visit – making the actual charge of less relevance.

  3. Allison said,

    10.01.09 at 1:03 pm

    And if the English want to see the Marbles in Greece that they would have to pay a lot to see them too, only add another Euro to their expense for museum admission (which I add, is a weak argument). What you are stating is that the people of Greece should have the opportunity to see the statues whenever they please, but if you are going to make this argument maybe you should calculate costs for each side before making that assumption. Calculate average expenses for someone who is English traveling into London and then compare the same costs for someone in countryside Greece going to Athens. Then maybe you should compare costs for international flights too.

    I find your original argument a bit pointless really, especially when museums are generally considered consumer destinations.

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