The cost of charging

Alistair Brown, 29.07.2015
The case for free entry for civic museums
The debate on admissions charging in museums has burst back on to the national stage after last week’s announcement that York Museums Trust plans to introduce an £7.50 charge for entry to the newly-refurbished York Art Gallery.

Should museums charge or shouldn’t they? Why do some museums charge while others don’t? Aren’t we just subsidising tourists? The public are hungry for answers to these questions.

Answering them – as David Fleming and I have done in around twenty media appearances in recent days, including BBC Breakfast and the Today programme – is a real opportunity to tell decision-makers and the public about the vital role that museums play in towns and cities across the country, and to defend the principle of free entry.

Free entry to civic museums has rarely looked more precarious after five years of austerity and the chancellor’s recent announcement that he was asking government departments to model cuts of 40%.

There is plenty of cause to be worried about local authorities pursuing a policy of entry fees as a panacea to the problems of museum funding.

There are plenty of practical reasons for keeping civic museums free. Charging for admission is often a false economy. Indeed, outside of a few tourist honeypots, such as York and Brighton, the introduction of fees is a risky strategy.

We know from countless previous examples that attendance numbers drop off a cliff when charging is introduced – indeed, the Novium Museum in Chichester reversed its charging policy less than a year ago after it found itself more than 70% short of its attendance target.

Entrance fees can make our museums inaccessible for those on lower incomes, while also pushing down museums’ own earned income by reducing footfall through the shop and café.

But there’s also an important positive case to be made here as well. Our local authority museums are vital parts of the civic sphere.

They support happy, peaceful communities. They educate and entertain. They care for collections that preserve collective memory and information about the local, national and international. And they should be accessible to all, not just a privileged few.

All of this seems obvious to us because we find ourselves repeating it over and over again – but it’s not necessarily obvious to others.

Even cultural commentators in London have engaged on this topic only in terms of arguments about free entry to the London-based national museums, without bothering to understand the important differences that exist between them and their counterparts in cities across the country.

Let’s avoid falling into the trap of making our culture smaller and more exclusive. Let’s patiently, repetitively, make the case for free entry, and let’s keep talking to the public about what is at risk.