Free thinking is still in vogue - Museums Association

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Calling all students: 10% off your new individual membership until 31 October

Free thinking is still in vogue

UK governments have committed to free entry to nationals until the next spending round
This month marks 10 years since free entry was implemented in England’s national museums and galleries. The devolved nations led the way in April 2001, with England following suit eight months later.

Those with longer memories might regard it as a reintroduction – entry charges were originally imposed after funding cuts and ideological pressure from successive Conservative governments in the 1980s.

The current Tory-led coalition has so far proved more supportive of the scheme, which is subsidised through grant-in-aid and a VAT exemption.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) plans to celebrate the anniversary with a high-profile breakfast at London’s Natural History Museum, where culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will join the policy’s original architect, Labour peer Chris Smith, in toasting its success.

At first glance, the results speak for themselves. In England, for example, visits to nationals that previously charged have risen by 151% over the past decade – 18 million last year, compared with 7.2m in 2000-01.

The National Museum Directors’ Conference (NMDC) estimates that, given its wider benefits to tourism and the economy, free admission generates £3.50 for every £1 it costs.

But while the scheme has brought huge rises in footfall, it has been less successful in other key objectives. A 2009 study by Tourism Insights found that the anticipated increase in trading income to make up for lost ticket sales has not materialised.

While overall revenue in cafes and shops grew with rising visitor numbers, the research found that spend per head remains static, and additional income has been matched by the increased cost of wear and tear caused by larger crowds.

Evidence also indicates that targets for low-income and ethnic-minority groups have not been met. Cultural consultant Sara Selwood, who has been researching the impact of the policy, says much of the rise in visitors is existing museum users making repeat trips.

“That sits uncomfortably with the realisation of the policy and the money spent on it,” she says. Visits by low-income groups to London’s nationals actually fell 7.2% between 2009-10 and 2010-11.

But a spokeswoman for the NMDC says that while the overall number of visitors from minority groups has risen less steeply, many individual museums have seen significant results.

David Anderson, director-general of National Museum Wales, agrees, saying the overall picture is skewed by London institutions with a different audience profile.Target groups now make up nearly 40% of visitors to Welsh museums, he adds.

Despite the scheme’s undeniable impact, calls to scrap free admission remain. Four years ago, then shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire caused a stir when he said that nationals should be given the option to reinstate charges.

The Conservative Party hurriedly sacked him and distanced itself from his proposal, but at a time of economic hardship, the argument against free admission is starting to find more fertile ground.

Many believe that the scheme offers nationals an unfair advantage, drawing visitors away from attractions that have to charge. There is also disquiet that while the nationals, with their huge numbers of overseas tourists, retain their subsidy, some regional museums have had to reintroduce charging for tax-paying visitors, following devastating local authority cuts.

Earlier this year, Labour MP Tristram Hunt called for free entry at nationals to be scrapped, saying funding should be diverted to struggling regional museums.

However, such arguments do not justify a U-turn on free admission, says former Art Fund director David Barrie, one of the scheme’s original proponents. He says money saved by scrapping the policy would be unlikely to find its way to other museums; rather, bringing back charges would just ensure more misery for everyone.

Barrie thinks that introducing even nominal charges would be a false economy, citing the Victoria and Albert Museum, which “turned from a museum into a mausoleum almost overnight”, after introducing a £5 charge in 1997.

“Visitor numbers plummeted and the effect on staff morale was disastrous,” he says.

The Museums Association has calculated that the public subsidy per head actually increases when charges are levied because of an average 40% fall in visitor numbers.

Chris Smith says charges would have a detrimental effect on the sector as a whole. He adds that one of the greatest impacts of free admission has been the generational shift in attitudes to cultural heritage, with “huge  numbers of families with children” now able to enjoy the nation’s treasures – to the benefit of all museums.

But, as was the case in the 1980s, the ideological and economic case for free entry may eventually be chipped away by severe funding cuts.

London’s National Maritime Museum has introduced a charge to visit its Meridian Courtyard, while nationals in Scotland have indicated that they may need to impose charges if their funding is cut further.

Governments across the UK have pledged to protect free admission until the next spending round. It remains to be seen whether that support will still be there in 10 years’ time.

Free museums with the biggest rise in visitor numbers since 2001

National Museums Liverpool
2000/01 710,210
2010/11 2,622,228
% change 269.2

National Maritime Museum
2000/01 799,777
2010/11 2,433,163
% change 204.2

Natural History Museum
2000/01 1,630,466
2010/11 4,682,783
% change 187.2

Victoria and Albert Museum
2000/01 936,652
2010/11 2,619,505
% change 179.7

Mosi (Manchester)
2000/01 287,814
2010/11 638,347
% change 121.8

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