In defence of 'free museums'

In his Art Quarterly column our director, Stephen Deuchar, considers the complexities of the revived debate over museum admission charging.

As my chairman notes on page 78 [Art Quarterly, autumn 2015 issue], this autumn’s government spending review marks a crucial moment for the UK’s museums and galleries sector. Are the strides we have made across the past two decades in the quality of collections care, visitor experience, interpretation and design – that dramatic rise in standards which has helped to make UK museums the envy of the world – to be rewarded by a reaffirmation of strong and continuing public investment, thereby attracting further funds from our arts philanthropists and charities? Or will government punish success with cuts, counterproductively discouraging philanthropy, bringing some smaller museums to their knees, and forcing larger ones both to scale down their creative programming and scale up their dependence on the market?

Whatever the outcome, the debate about free admission to museums is already squarely back on the table. It’s a debate, however, that’s often hampered by popular misconceptions. First, of course, a great many UK museums do already charge for basic admission to see their collections: these are usually the ones that don’t receive any public funding (including virtually all historic houses, for example, whether privately owned or run by the National Trust). Some local authority and/or Arts Council-funded museums offer free admission (such as those in Birmingham or Sheffield) and others do not (see York Art Gallery, newly reopened). All the so-called ‘national’ museums – that is to say the 14 that are centrally funded through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – are currently free, reflecting present government policy.

“Free admission is unquestionably an important mechanism for ensuring that museums remain accessible and socially inclusive.”

The spectrum, then, is broad. But a second misunderstanding is that all free museums could, in the face of government funding cuts, simply make good the shortfall by charging for admission. In fact, charging at the door can have two immediate consequences: it can discourage many people from coming in at all, and so visitor numbers are invariably much smaller than they otherwise would be, and, of course, it simply reduces the amount of money that visitors have left in their pockets to spend in the shop or café. So fewer visitors, each spending no more net than they would have done with free entry, can be the self-defeating result.

A further popular misconception is that museums are either essentially free or charging. In reality, virtually all museums make strenuous efforts to raise income from their visitors, whether through selling tickets, merchandise or refreshments: the gross revenue from these sources in a ‘free’ museum such as the Tate, British Museum or National Gallery, of course runs to many millions of pounds per institution per year. But by guaranteeing no compulsory charge at the door, and by allowing free access to collections which the UK tax payer rightly regards as already belonging to him or her, they are both complying with government policy and ensuring that whatever cultural, social and economic barriers there may be to entering a museum (and to the less advantaged in society there are many barriers indeed) a compulsory charge is not one of them. It is not an irony but a fact of life that, within each institution, free admission is actually made possible by vigorous charging – that is to say for the optional services offered through exhibitions and retailing.

The debate takes another difficult turn when it is suggested, as it often is, that as UK citizens invariably find themselves being charged to enter museums abroad, we should logically charge admission to overseas tourists here. This idea conveniently ignores the evidence that the UK’s free National Museums are among the most frequently cited reasons for tourists coming here in the first place, bringing revenue to many quarters of the UK economy beyond the institutions themselves. Moreover, the idea that you’d need to produce a UK passport to get into, say, the British Museum free, and that foreigners would meanwhile be siphoned off towards a till, is scarcely modern and hardly civilised – the very qualities that our best museums so demonstrably embody. In any case, it would probably be illegal to discriminate between UK and other EU citizens in the first place.

The Art Fund’s position in all this is clear, one with which we hope most of our members and supporters will agree. We believe – and we have done so since our inception in 1903 – that all the UK’s museum collections should be easily available for everyone to enjoy. Free admission is unquestionably an important mechanism for ensuring that museums remain accessible and socially inclusive places, and that is why we campaigned vigorously and successfully for free access to the National Museums in 2001 and strongly advocate the continuation of this policy today.

We also recognise that, in an environment of punitive budget cuts, some museums may believe that charging for admission could help make good lost public funding – and in instances where alternative admission models might guarantee better access and inclusivity, they clearly should be considered, notwithstanding the net economic dangers outlined above. It also seems likely that many museums will adopt more aggressive commercial measures in order to protect themselves from contraction, and we must hope they do so without undermining the quality or integrity of their creative programming.

No blanket policy or set of strategies will ever work for the whole sector, given the multiple funding models that exist, and no one, least of all government, should pretend otherwise. But one principle is common to all: the heritage and future of our great public museums – our great national assets – are dependent on the provision, at both national and local level, of ongoing public investment.

Whether this is understood in terms of ‘public subsidy’ or as a ‘partnership’ with private funding sources, museums must be able to discharge their core responsibilities (the care of buildings, collections and visitors) as well as maintaining and developing the practical, creative and intellectual ambition for which they have become revered and renowned. The ideologies of austerity should not be allowed to undermine UK museums’ position as world leaders in their field.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's autumn 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

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