Should museums charge?

Should museums charge for admission? It's a perennial question that rears its ugly head every now and then, often sending the museum sector into a defensive tailspin. Free entry to national museums has been described as 'the sacred cow of the museum world' and it's never a debate the sector welcomes. Today I talked to Roberto Perrone on BBC Three Counties Radio about this very issue: the interview is here at 1 hour 24 minutes in if you want to listen again. (I've no idea why they asked me rather than someone closer to home but I'm grateful for the opportunity, now I've got over the 'does my voice really sound like that?' weirdness!) 


The debate has come around now due to a number of factors, the main one being the government's decision to ask all its departments, including DCMS which funds national museums, to model budget cuts of 40% and 25%. York Museums Trust's decision to begin charging admission to the revamped York Art Gallery has also made the news (reported on by the York Press and the BBC). The Guardian published an article today by its art critic Jonathan James who argues that museums should charge admission because 'people would pay' and suggests that free entry is the difference that means museums are 'no longer dowdy', combining classic London-centric middle-class entitlement with a wilful disregard for what has really made the difference to museums in the last few decades (20 years of Heritage Lottery-funded investment being the main thing). 


A lot of museums are not free anyway.  Museums in the independent sector that don't receive any public funding rely on admission charges as their main source of income. Many museums run by local authorities will also charge admission, even if only a nominal amount. Even the free national museums charge sometimes eye-watering sums to visit their temporary exhibitions. The impression that 'all museums are free' is down to the policy, sustained by successive governments since 2001, of giving national museums grant-in-aid on condition that they offer free access to visitors, reported on by a mainly London-centred media. A debate that concentrates on the London-based national museums rather than the thousands of museums across the country run by local authorities, trusts, independent charities or volunteers misses the complexity of the issue. 


It could be argued - and I have some sympathy with this view - that free admission to national museums advantages Londoners and tourists and does little for the rest of the country. Most people don't have a national museum on their doorstep. I'm lucky in Yorkshire in that we have four excellent ones (the National Media Museum, National Railway Museum and National Coal Mining Museum for England, all part of the Science Museum group, as well as the Royal Armouries), but if I want to see the national collections at the British Museum, or the Science Museum or V&A, it will cost getting on for £100 in rail fares just to get to their front door. Most of the London nationals have regional partnership programmes that see them loan items elsewhere in the country but in my view these don't go far enough to promote access to their collections nationwide. However, charging for entry is unlikely to plug the funding gap that national museums would see in the event of a worst case scenario 40% budget cut from DCMS and the impact would arguably be felt most in cities like Bradford and Liverpool where the majority of visitors to the national museums are not the stereotypical wealthy tourists but come from within the local community. Most national museums have already seen their budgets cut to the bone and their response, in the form of cost-cutting exercises like the National Gallery's decision to outsource its front of house staff or the Science Museum accepting sponsorship from ethically dubious oil companies, are no less controversial than charging for admission. 


I also have some sympathy with the view expressed on Roberto's show that museums could charge overseas tourists - or for local authorities, people from outside the area - while maintaining free access for residents. However, that's not going to solve museums' problems either.  Charging tourists won't make any difference to those museums in areas that don't see high levels of tourism - my local museums in Calderdale or Kirklees, for example. I've heard rumours that the lovely Bagshaw Museum in Batley, the museum that inspired me as a child, and where I subsequently began my career as a volunteer back in 1996, is slated for closure in the next few years. Bringing in admission charges, whether for residents, tourists or both, isn't going to save it. 


Whatever your view on charging, it's evident that the tough funding climate for museums is only going to get worse and museums will start to bring in admission charges, cut their opening hours or close venues completely. If people want museums to be free, or to exist at all, they need to support them.  If you love museums and you want them to keep their doors open, check out the #ILoveMuseums campaign being run by the National Museum Directors' Conference and think about how you can help support the museums in your local community. If you work in the creative industries, Arts Council England's #culturematters toolkit could also help.  Write to your MP or your local councillor, use your local museums, make a donation if you can, and shout about how great museums are on social media. I shall be taking my daughter to Bagshaw Museum at the weekend and thinking about what difference I can make. 


posted by Emma | 0 comments

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