Entrance fees to museums were scrapped on 1 December 2001 as part of the Labour government’s plan to widen access to the nation’s culture and heritage.It was certainly nice to wander into the British Museum recently and not have to consider the charges or wonder if it would be worth paying,seeing as it was already afternoon. Scrapping admission charges is apparently a success story; figures from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) suggest that eight of the top 10 most-visited attractions in the UK are free, government-sponsored national museums.Government figures show visits to museums that had previously charged for entry in London increased by 151% between 2000-01 and 2010-11. The total visitor numbers to DCMS-sponsored museums for 2010-11 was 43.8m. Naturally the museums are adept at extracting money from visitors in other ways; on entry there is a huge perspex box full of £5 and £10 notes suggesting a donation could be made. The obligatory cup of tea in the café will set you back over £2. A trip to the gift shop and more cash disappears.
This may seem a churlish comment given that the museums themselves are so wonderful and anyone can now visit, but my other gripe is that my visit this month was the first time I have been able to take advantage of Labour’s generous scheme. A trip to London is prohibitively expensive and there are no free museums, on this sort of scale, locally. And let’s not forget that, in funding free entry, the government aimed not just to increase visitor numbers, but also to broaden the range of people visiting museums. Research undertaken by MORI suggested that there have been only small changes to the profile of visitors, and that some of the increase is accounted for by the same kinds of people – or even the same people – visiting museums more often.Those who live in London and probably visited museums anyway are the most likely to take advantage of the scrapping of charges.Perhaps there should be a scheme whereby all households are entitled to free monthly cinema or theatre tickets so that we all have a chance to enjoy free “art”
My other moan is that, in the light of all the Coalition’s cuts,there is a single-minded determination that free admission to museums and art galleries will continue. Whilst I don’t deny that the Arts play an important role in people’s lives and children’s education, the free swimming for children and pensioners (quickly abolished by the cost-cutting Coalition) was taken advantage of universally and had the potential to transform public health in the long-term.The Arts lobby is obviously more influential. As Dominic Lawson points out in The Independent, “Why is free swimming around the corner from children in Bolton or Plymouth self-evidently an extravagance, while free museums around the corner from the residents of Knightsbridge a sacred subsidy that cannot even be questioned?” I think it would be fairer if there was a way of dropping admissions charges to for instance all stately homes-that way wherever you live you have a chance of experiencing ‘culture.’ The alternative is to obtain corporate sponsorship for art galleries and museums thereby still keeping free admission but freeing up government money; it is also worth remembering that over 40 per cent of those who take advantage of this subsidy are foreign tourists (and in the case of the British Museum about 60 per cent),but the scheme was supposedly designed to encourage the most disadvantaged of our population.