Cuts threatening free entry

Could national museums be forced to consider charging admission if grant-in-aid revenue continues to decline, asks Patrick Steel
Patrick Steel
The policy of free entry to government-sponsored museums could be in jeopardy as funding cuts are forcing boards to consider every option.

National museums in England have seen their grant-in-aid cut by 30% over the past five years. Although Labour, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have all confirmed they will maintain the free entry policy (first introduced in 2001) after the election, funding predictions indicate no reversal of the current cuts if Labour wins, and further cuts of up to 20% in the next parliament if there is a Conservative victory.

National museums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also had their grant-in-aid cut heavily over the past five years, and Museums Journal understands that this has led the boards of a number of nationals across the UK to discuss the implications of charging

There is a range of views among the membership of the National Museum Directors’ Council says Suzie Tucker, the head of strategy and communications at the organisation.
“But it is not something we have a collective view on as different boards feel differently. At the moment it is part of the nationals’ funding agreements, but it is an increasing challenge in the face of funding cuts.”

Government commitment

It is not a route that trustees or the administration want to go down, says John Leighton, the director general of National Galleries Scotland (NGS), but free entry requires a level of commitment from government and if that falls away to the point where it is no longer sustainable, then charging for admission comes back on the table.

The original, unspoken agreement in 2001 was that grant-in-aid would keep the doors open and in return museums would do everything to widen access to their venues, according to Christoph Vogtherr, the director of the Wallace Collection in London. But Vogtherr says funding has been cut so much that all of the museum’s energy is taken up in just keeping the doors open.

Vogtherr’s board has “talked about the political, social and economic implications of reintroducing charging”, but it has not done in-depth research. He says that the board had the discussion because “it would be naive not consider every option”. He guesses that every board has at least asked what it would do if charging was an option again, but stresses that he would like to see free entry continue.

Widening audiences

An added pressure on the policy came last month from the Warwick Commission report (see p7), which notes that for 2008-12 higher social groups accounted for 87% of all government-sponsored museum visits, while the lower social groups accounted for only 13%. Free entry, it concludes, “has failed in its declared mission to make flagship museums more inclusive”.

But David Anderson, the director of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), says that what the report deems a failure is still a positive thing as there has been an increase in the absolute number of people from the lower social groups using museums.

Failure to broaden audiences is more about inclusion in every element of a museum, he says, than it is about free entry – the important thing is to have a strategy for inclusion.
That strategy is harder to implement as museums retrench in the face of cuts.

The Museums Association’s (MA) Cuts Survey 2014, published last November, found that 27% of museums would be doing less to encourage participation over the coming year, while 26% would be doing less learning and outreach.

MA campaign

The MA is campaigning to turn that around. Free entry is important, says Sharon Heal, the MA’s director, and particularly at a time when the wider economic situation means families are facing financial pressures.

Leighton from NGS adds that organisations can do more but there is no doubt that free entry is a crucial part of the effort to open culture to a wider audience. “What would it look like if there had been a £10 charge?”

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