Tristram Hunt argues for the reintroduction of admission charges. This is what we have to say.

  • 8 March 2011

In the latest Observer, Tristram Hunt argues for the reintroduction of admission charges at national museums and galleries, and moots that if any museums need to be free it is the smaller, often struggling, regional institutions such as the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent (which may start charging for entry).

It would be a real shame if the Potteries Museum imposed an entry fee – its ceramics collection is truly world-class, and people queued round the block last year to catch a (free) glimpse of the Staffordshire Hoard – the glittering Anglo-Saxon treasure that the Art Fund fundraised £3.3m for in order to keep it in the country.

It would be fantastic if all museums were free all of the time – but this, of course, is pie in the sky, especially in these straightened times. Instead the Government had to cherry pick – and in introducing a policy of free entry to 20 or so of our national institutions, in one swoop doubled museum visits, boosted tourism and became the envy of the world. The UK now has five of the top 20 most visited museums in the world, more than France or the US.

Tristram’s claims that it has not broadened audiences is not strictly true – while those in lower socio-economic groups still don’t attend in their droves, there has been an 80% increase in the numbers of children visiting, and 82% increase in visits by black and ethnic minority visitors. And if those that visited before free entry are now going more frequently, all the better! Free entry certainly works: the V&A saw visitor numbers halve when it introduced charges in 1997. Happily, it now boasts free entry.

There are economic arguments too: free entry is not only a powerful incentive to visit museums, but an income generator in its own right. Once inside, museum goers contribute substantially to the coffers through exhibition tickets, donation boxes and café and shop spending. Beyond making good financial sense, free admission has become a source of significant national pride and identity, and it has been shown to be the most popular policy introduced by the last Government.

Tristram does make a pertinent point about collapsing acquisition budgets though – can our national museums really continue to be world-class if they aren’t able to add to their collections and keep them exciting and relevant? One way you can certainly help - become an Art Fund member. Not only do you get free entry into over 200 museums and galleries across the UK, you also receive 50% off major exhibitions – all for as little as £35 per year. And your money goes into our fighting pot that every year gives millions of pounds to museums and galleries to help them buy significant works for their collections. What better way to support our country’s fantastic heritage, and enjoy it at the same time? 

See Tristram Hunt's original comment in the Observer.