The conversation

Maggie Appleton, Issue 115/11, p17, 01.11.2015
Is it time to rethink free admission at national museums?
Sam Mullins is the managing director of the London Transport Museum


Maggie Appleton is the chief executive at the RAF Museum


Dear Maggie: Ever since being introduced in 2001, discussion of free admission for national museums has been inhibited by it being treated as a principle and not a choice – a sacred cow rather than a reasoned decision.

Now, following York Museums Trust and Brighton & Hove City Council introducing charges to offset the loss of local authority funding, the debate is moving into more pragmatic territory.

If support from central government continues to diminish, the nationals run the same risk of being hollowed out by cuts as other museums become reliant on public funding.

Can the principled stand for free admission be sustained in the straightened circumstances nationals will find themselves after this month’s comprehensive spending review? Best wishes, Sam

Dear Sam: I agree that we need to be pragmatic in these difficult times. And there is no silver lining or crock of gold waiting for any publicly funded museum. But this principle is about our museums being owned by, and accessible to, all of us.

With less money coming through the door and more children living in poverty – even in working families – surely we ought to be encouraging continued public investment in our museums? Best wishes, Maggie

Dear Maggie: Free entry applies only to a few charmed national museums. It does not apply to other public assets such as swimming pools, theatres or sports facilities.

Museum trustees at the nationals need to take a view on the impact of charging unfettered by the principle of free admission. What is good for the long-term sustainability of the organisation and the public benefit it should deliver? Do they wish to preside over a tired but free museum or a happening museum that charges? Best wishes, Sam

Dear Sam: I don’t believe that having to pay for some of our vital public services should mean that, in the pursuit of equalisation, we lose free access to all.

Free admission has helped underline the importance of museums as social learning spaces and been a platform for creative engagement with individuals and communities.

For people who think that museums aren’t for them, charges are another barrier that confirms their perceptions. Casting off the principle now would undermine much of the transformative progress we have made since 2001. Best wishes, Maggie

Dear Maggie: I don’t see a transformation since 2001, just a lot more of the same visitors. Large museums that charge, such as the Black Country Living Museum and London Transport Museum, have a better demographic mix than any free national museum.

We research our audiences, provide for them, market to them and welcome them back with their season tickets.

National museums should be looking for a business plan that offers enhanced public benefit through income from admissions, rather than defending inevitable decline based on this untenable and anomalous principle. Best wishes, Sam

Dear Sam: Many museums – large and small, charging and free – are adapting to become cultural enterprises. We focus on driving up self-generated income while improving efficiency.

Public investment makes up a very small proportion of total government spending, but makes a clear statement about values and purpose. The Taking Part surveys show a broadening in diversity of users and an increase in numbers from lower and upper socio-economic groups.

At a time when we need more than ever to combat social isolation, and provide space for creativity, discovery and community engagement, now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge. Best wishes, Maggie