Sharon Heal

Sharon Heal: editorial

Sharon Heal, Issue 111/11, p4, 01.11.2011
Cuts are putting free admission at risk
Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the introduction of free admission for national museums in England (Scotland and Wales celebrated their anniversaries earlier this year).

It’s a cause for applause when you consider that those organisations that formerly charged have increased their visitors by more than 150% on average in the intervening period.

There is no room for complacency, however; the Conservatives have long been rumoured to be in favour of charging and, despite all their protest to the contrary, would probably love the London nationals to be able to levy high admission charges on their millions of visitors.

Continued free entry is a cause worth supporting, but the 10-year celebrations might be muted when the UK-wide picture is taken into account.

In Scotland, for example, where national museums have been hard hit by funding reductions, there has been serious talk of reintroducing charges.

Earlier this year, National Museums Scotland was forced to introduce charges for five to 12-year-olds at three of its sites – a move it attributed directly to the budget cuts.

Elsewhere around the UK, local authority museums have suffered far more brutal cuts than the national institutions, and many have felt that they have had no choice but to introduce charges.

The impact where this has happened has been swift and drastic – falls in visitor numbers of between a third and a half have been recorded.

However, it’s not just about the numbers that come through the door. The real effect of charging will be felt in terms of who visits a museum, and the position the museum itself holds in the local community.

So yes, let’s celebrate free admission but let’s also highlight the effect cuts are having on museums throughout the UK.

Sharon Heal, editor, Museums Journal


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MA Member
23.11.2011, 16:54
Malcolm, Your comments seem a little blinded by the ideal of the perfect museum world, rather than the reality of the situtaion we are all in. I would to think that museums could all be free and open institutions, but they are not. Even the supposed free museums we discuss below have covert (and often overt) charges in place, from the special exhibition to the locker.

The question the sector needs to ask itself is what am I for (or even, what am allowed to be for)? It seems the previous decade of being about education, access and enjoyment are drawing to a close, and we are now entering the tourism and experience markets at a pace that are taking us all by suprise (well many of us). Museums are now not only having to pay their own way, but are having to compete in a flooded visitor attraction market. Museums are losing education and outreach staff at a fast pace, and instead are reverting to employing 'Heads of Development' and 'Visitor Experience Managers' or the ominous, 'Commercial Manager'. If the sector is having to change, then so too should the guarded nationals. If they can't adapt and move with the rest of the sector, then we will only see greater polarisation of the sector from the centrally funded few to the squabbling rabble of the masses. I would much rather see museums looking inward at themselves and asking the challenging questions of 'who am I for' and 'how can I and my collection survive'. Those true community museums will have nothing to fear from asking, and will likely remain as-is, but those that have struggled to engage and integrate their local community into their museum will likely find that their core audience is the visitor with a few pounds in their pocket to spend on their cultural experience, and probably not at the cost of their remit or audience base...
17.11.2011, 08:48
The politics of envy are coming into play here. 'I have financial problems and charging, so others should enjoy them as well'. Just as with pensions, the parlous position fo some is being used to bring down the rights (privileges?) of others. The truth is that we should be seeking ways to improve the situation for all, not bring things down to the lowest common denominator.
The number of small, often privately owned, museums that proliferated in recent years ahs weakened the position of the core, by diverting funding and audiences. Perhaps this is not undesirable, but it has certainly not helped the provincial local government museums that have provided the spine to the skeleton of British museums for so long.
There should be a serious and concerted effort to support and improve the colections held by local government museums, but the introduction of charges will weaken visitor numbers and drive closures and sales.
This latter has not been helped by the woolly-minded thinking of the MA's own ethics committee which has opened the door to disposals for financial reasons.
Local authority museums are at greater risk than for generations, perhaps ever. The focus should be on these collections and the staff that curate them (and I mean curate, not all the other stuff which ahs crept in over a few decades). Lose them, and we will all - nationals, trusts, small private museums and all - be much poorer.
So people shouldn't call for the removal of free admission because they have chosen a specific style of museum offer. Instead, they should ask themselves whether their own choices have contributing to undermining the whole edifice.
Ducks below parapet.....
16.11.2011, 15:56
I agree with the comments so far and would love to see a token entry charge for the Nationals. I don’t know what the statistics are but the British Museum always seems to be very busy with overseas visitors – which is great . However they don’t expect free entry, just like we don’t expxt it when we visit museum abroad. I’d like to see a £2 entry charge for the BM with kids going in free. I really don’t think this would put many people off and compared to other London attractions it would still be a stupendous bargain. This money could then be pumped back into museums nationally and into a ‘school visits to museums’ funding pot.

I can’t remember the statistic but I think the average donation at the BM is less than 25p per visitor. I think that about sums up the situation. Most local authority museums (mine included) bring home an average donation many multiples of that – but then I guess necessity is the mother of invention.

Oh and just thinking about the amazing subsidised BM canteen makes me so jealous, especially when I compare it to our staffroom/stationary cupboard.
MA Member
16.11.2011, 13:38
I agree with Martin, I also think Tristram Hunt's piece in the Guardian earlier this year: sums the argument up well. We cannot have a two tier museum system with nationals held aloft whilst the rest of us sink further and further into the charging bog...
13.11.2011, 15:49
Free admission subsidised by the taxpayer is not necessarily such a good thing. It distorts the market and is hugely unfair on those museums that do not enjoy any subsidy from the public purse. Whilst there is a fairly clear benefit to taxpayers funding museum entry for children, just as we all pay for schools, it seems to me absurd that taxpayers are providing free entry to a number of national museums for the benefit of hoards of overseas tourists. We want tourism to thrive but there are much better ways to support the tourism industry than this. Independent museums without subsidy have to compete for visitors with the nationals and with local authority subsidised museums as well. I'd rather see tax pounds used to provide schools with bigger budgets for museum visiting, and to provide the Arts Council with a bigger budget for museum development grants.