Sunday, March 06, 2011

Tristram Hunt is wrong to argue for the reintroduction of charges for gallery and museum entry

According to Tristram Hunt, writing in today's Observer 'a truly equitable cultural policy might begin to think about the reintroducing charges for our national museums and galleries.' Really? Surely the most equitable policy is the one we have already; a policy that has delivered record numbers of visitors to our national museums and galleries and a policy that polls have shown to be the most popular public policy introduced by Labour's 1997-2001 government.

What Tristram fails to mention in his Observer piece is that back in the 1980s, national museums faced political pressure from the then Conservative government to charge for admission in order to make them less dependent on government funding. The result was that close to half of the major national museums introduced charges whilst the rest, including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery, held out. What happened as a consequence is illuminating in terms of the likely impact of any return to a charging policy nationally. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s visitor numbers at the free national museums grew spectacularly, while many of the charging museums suffered marked declines. For example the Victoria and Albert Museum introduced a £5 admission charge in 1997 and saw its visitor numbers halved as a result.

In 1997, the new Labour government made a commitment to reinstate free entry at the national museums in the belief that doing so would significantly broaden the range of people visiting museums. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales also agreed to fund free entry at the national museums which they support, and free entry for all was introduced at all their sites in 2001. The national museums which dropped charges all saw substantial increases to their visitor numbers, an average of 70 per cent. In the first year after free admission was introduced visitor figures to the V&A rose by 111% from 1.1 million to 2.3 million. Figures have continued to rise: compared with 2001, 5.3 million extra people visited the free museums in 2002, 5.6 million extra in 2003 and 6 million extra in 2004.

It should also be remembered that many of these museums also completed hugely successful Heritage Lottery Fund projects in or around the same period and these have also had an enormous effect on visitors figures. Research undertaken by the Museums Association showed that the museums most 'successful' in terms of visitor figures were also those which had opened new or newly refurbished facilities and had also introduced free admission.

Tristram's argument appears to be predicated on the notion that if the excellent Potteries Museum is forced to charge for entry then so should the National Gallery and the British Museum. Surely a more principled, more far-sighted approach would see the likes of Tristram standing up for free entry to all publicly funded museum and galleries, especially in these hard times. Free access enables people to use museums and galleries in different ways; to meet friends or as a place to rest or think, in other words they are important civic and social spaces. Admission charges may not be the only barrier to the less well-off, they are nevertheless a significant. barrier. Museums are galleries are more like libraries than 'day out' venues, because they are about learning, as well as about enjoyment.

As a Labour member and supporter I am proud of Labour's record in this area and would seek to defend the current policy, indeed I think as a progressive movement we should be debating how any future cultural policy can further increase public access and participation in the arts. The reintroduction of charging for entry to our national museums and galleries would be a regressive act and I would imagine the vast majority of my fellow party members feel the same.

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