Free admission and the lottery

In 2001, free entry was reintroduced at national museums in England, Scotland and Wales which had previously charged for admission. Visitor numbers have subsequently shot up at those museums and many more people appear to be taking the opportunity to visit.

There has been a long debate about the benefits of free entry to museums, and the introduction of free entry at the national museums inevitably brought some problems with it.

In the 1980s, national museums faced political pressure from the Conservative government to charge for admission, to make them less dependent on government funding. About half of the major national museums did eventually introduce charges. The rest - including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery - held out.

Over the next 15 years, visitor numbers at many of the free national museums grew spectacularly, while some of the charging museums suffered marked declines. The Victoria and Albert Museum introduced a £5 admission charge in 1997 and saw its visitor numbers halved as a result.

In 1997, the new Labour government made a commitment to reinstate free entry at the national museums. Government ministers believed that doing so would broaden the range of people visiting museums. In England, the government provided funding for free admission for children in April 1999 and for over 60s in April 2001. But VAT regulations stood in the way of the introduction of universal free entry until the Chancellor included changes to VAT in the 2001 budget.

The charging nationals agreed to drop their charges in return for extra government funding to compensate for lost income from selling tickets. These museums dropped charges for admission to their permanent collections at all their charging sites on 1st December 2001, although they continue to charge for special exhibitions.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales also agreed to fund free entry at the national museums which they support, and free entry for all was introduced at all their sites in April 2001.

The national museums which dropped charges all saw substantial increases to their visitor numbers, an average of 70 per cent. In the first year after free admission was introduced visitor figures to the V&A rose by 111% from 1.1 million to 2.3 million. Figures have continued to rise: compared with 2001, 5.3 million extra people visited the free museums in 2002, 5.6 million extra in 2003 and 6 million extra in 2004.

It should also be remembered that many of these museums also completed hugely successful Heritage Lottery Fund projects in or around the same period and these have also had an enormous effect on visitors figures.

A recent piece of research undertaken by the MA with from Sara Selwood at City University showed that the museums most 'successful' in terms of visitor figures were also those which had opened new or newly refurbished facilities and had also introduced free admission.

More visitors, but who are they?

In funding free entry, the government aimed not just to increase visitor numbers, but also to broaden the range of people visiting museums. So far, there have been relatively small changes to the profile of visitors.

Some of the increase in visitor numbers is accounted for by the same kinds of people - or the very same people - visiting museums more often. But this is not surprising. Museums know that free entry does not deliver wide access on its own.

It takes imaginative programming and marketing to change an audience profile significantly, as well as sustained development work with communities with no tradition of museum visiting.

Charges at other museums

Free entry at national museums has inevitably had an impact on the rest of the museums sector - particularly on independent museums, which rely on charging. This has led some to argue that free entry amounts to unfair government subsidy.

There is some evidence that charging museums - particularly those near newly free museums - have experienced a decline in visitor numbers. There was also a perception that free admission was weighted heavily in favour of apparently already wealthy London museums with little benefit to the whole spread of museums throughout the UK.

In July 2005 DCMS announced that the VAT exemption on museums and galleries, which enables these organisations to introduce free entry, is to be extended to University museums and galleries.


Department for Culture:

Mori survey on the impact of free entry (pdf)