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Is it time to re-consider the importance of free museum admission

In the face of UK public spending cutbacks, more & more people are questioning [1] the free museum admission policy [2]. Certainly, it is nice for everyone to be able to use them for free, but does this sometimes occur to the detriment of the visitor experience?

Guardian [3]

We need to start charging for museums and galleries again
Reintroducing entrance fees for the great collections should be a plank of government arts planning
Tristram Hunt
The Observer, Sunday 6 March 2011

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent is, according to author AN Wilson, “the greatest museum in the world”. Its ceramics collection is rivalled only by the V&A, its Arnold Bennett archive is bettered only by the British Library and its Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasures is second only to the British Museum.

But while it is free to visit the V&A, the British Library and Museum, an entrance fee is set to be charged in Stoke. Across the country, eye-watering cuts to local authority budgets mean that councils are either closing museums or ratcheting up charges. Last week, artist Anish Kapoor accused the Tories of having a “castration complex” about the arts. Yet, in the midst of this, the teeming London museums continue to enjoy a state subsidy to retain free admission.

It was an achievement of the Labour government to deliver free entry to national collections. To wander into the National Portrait Gallery or the Imperial War Museum at Duxford was a delight. The last 15 years signalled a cultural renaissance in Britain as museums and galleries were restored and expanded with lottery funding and government investment. Visitor numbers went up and London’s standing as a creative hub outshone New York and Paris.

But the real work was done behind the scenes, for when it came to broadening audiences for art and culture, free entry didn’t achieve that much. According to a study by Mori: “While the number of people coming through the door might have dramatically increased, the profile of a typical ‘population’ of museum or gallery visitors has remained relatively stable and firmly biased in favour of the ‘traditional’ visitor groups.” Instead, working with schools, a proper outreach strategy and well-funded inclusion programmes did more to bring hard-to-reach audiences through their forbidding porticoes. Whether it was the National Gallery’s use of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks to engage single mothers or the Whitworth Gallery’s proactive work in Moss Side, hard graft by curators in their communities shifted a gallery’s audience and reputation. And that is exactly what is under threat. The savage assault on the English Heritage budget, for example, has forced it to close its access department which had successfully opened up history and heritage for thousands of inner-city children.

Now comes the assault on the region’s arts. In addition to council-funded museums feeling the pinch, the government has cut Renaissance in the Regions funding, slashed the Arts Council budget and wound down all central support for “non-national museums”. So, the People’s History Museum in Manchester and the Tyne and Wear Museums will have to become dependent upon local authority support, which means entrance fees.

But not in London. This metropolitan, club-class government has made sure that our global cultural icons are immune from the pressures hitting their regional colleagues and, even more perversely, in the case of Tate Modern, continue to enjoy secure funds for major capital projects.

So, while American tourists and continental mini-breakers have no problem paying €6.50 to wonder at the majesty of Lorenzetti in the Uffizi and €8 to feast on Velázquez at the Prado, in London it is all gratis. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a de facto $20 entrance fee for adults, so why not a fiver for London’s great galleries? Would it really undermine our cultural competitiveness?

Most museums would support it as well. Acquisition budgets in London and Edinburgh have been falling over the last few years. Time and again, our national galleries are being outbid by foreign rivals as they seek to keep their collections relevant. Curatorial budgets are collapsing and recent cuts to grant-in-aid funding shows the dangers of over-reliance upon the state.

A truly equitable cultural policy might begin to think about reintroducing charges for our national museums. Naturally, one needs safeguards with schools and students retaining free entry and a free day a week reserved for residents. Some of the extra income gained could also be allocated to proper inclusion strategies and grant-in-aid funds relocated to support our provincial collections.

It was in the great regional cities of England that the 1845 Museums Act made its mark, as corporations worked to bring culture to people blighted by the Industrial Revolution. In these hard times, if anywhere should be free, it should be the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, not Tate Modern and its tour parties.