Museums criticised for charging researchers for access

Prehistoric Society produces statement in response to increasing number of cases
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Charging researchers for access to museum collections is “ethically wrong”, according to a statement by the Prehistoric Society.

The statement, which can be downloaded on the society’s website, claims that such charges risk “atrophying the growth of artefact studies” and act against the interests of the museums, which benefit from research into their collections, especially in cases where curators are not specialists themselves.

Alexander Gibson, a reader in British prehistory at the University of Bradford and the president of the Prehistoric Society, said it decided to produce the statement after it asked about charges using social media and received a “flood of responses” – including one from a student who said she changed research topics because she couldn’t afford the daily charges.

“This is our public heritage, often discovered and preserved using public money,” Gibson said. “We realise the financial constraints that museums are facing, and while we understand the need for commercial revenue, this should come from merchandise and so on, not from the bona fide research of the collection, often by students who may be least able to afford the charges.”

The council said in the statement that the only exception to a principle of non-charging for research would be large projects with major funding, which might be a burden on museums. But it added that charges were otherwise “ethically wrong in relation to the role of museums in caring for collections that belong to the public and we also believe it to be counterproductive in the longer term”.

The statement also claimed that charges for research do not comply with the Museums Association’s (MA) code of ethics, which states that museums should make collections more accessible and develop mechanisms that encourage people to research collections.

Alistair Brown, the policy officer at the MA, said: “We recognise that charging researchers for access is a difficult issue. No museum will take the decision to impose charges lightly, and it is an indication of the difficult financial position of museums across the UK that a small number have taken this step.

“While the code of ethics does not explicitly discuss charging for access to collections, it does have a presumption towards public access. The ethics committee will be examining this issue in greater detail as we draft a new code of ethics this year.”

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