Friday, April 22, 2011

Don’t repeat past mistakes on museums and galleries

Labour must resist the cultural vandalism of making people pay to visit museums and galleries - the piece below also appears in this week's edition of Tribune

According to Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP, writing in the Observer on March 6: “A truly equitable cultural policy might begin to think about reintroducing charges for our national museums and galleries.”

But many would argue that the most equitable policy is the one we have already – a policy that has delivered record numbers of visitors to national museums and galleries. Opinion polls have shown this to be the most popular policy introduced by the Labour Government in the years 1997-2001.

Tristram Hunt ought to study some recent history. In the 1980s, museums came under pressure from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government to charge for admission in order to make them less dependent on state funding.

The result was that nearly 50 per cent of the major national museums introduced charges, while the rest, including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery, resisted doing so.

What happened next is illuminating in terms of the likely impact of any return to a charging policy. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, visitor numbers at free national museums grew spectacularly. In contrast, many of the charging museums suffered marked declines in attendances. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum introduced a £5 admission charge in 1997 and saw its visitor numbers halved as a consequence.

Labour came to power in 1997 having made a commitment to reinstate free entry at the national museums. The belief was that doing this would significantly broaden the range of people visiting museums. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales also opted to fund free entry at the national museums they support.

Free entry for all was introduced at all their sites in 2001. All the national museums which dropped charges saw substantial increases in their visitor numbers – an average rise of 70 per cent.

In the first year after free admission was introduced, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s visitor figures rose by 111 per cent – from 1.1 million to 2.3 million. Figures have continued to rise. Compared with 2001, an additional 5.3 million people visited the free museums in 2002, another 5.6 million in 2003 and another six million in 2004.

Many of these museums completed hugely successful Heritage Lottery Fund projects in or around the same period and these have also had an enormous effect on visitor numbers. According to research undertaken by the Museums Association, the museums most successful in terms of attendances were those which opened new or newly-refurbished facilities and introduced free admission.

Hunt’s argument seems to be predicated on the notion that if the excellent Potteries Museum in his Stoke Central constituency is forced to charge for entry, then so should the National Gallery and the British Museum. It would be a more principled and far-sighted approach to defend free entry to all publicly-funded museum and galleries, especially in the present hard economic climate.

Free access enables people to use museums and galleries in different ways – not just to educate, inform, amaze and delight, but to meet friends and as places for research, thought and reflection. In other words, museums and galleries are important civic and social spaces.

While admission charges may not be the only barrier to the less well-off, nevertheless they are a significant barrier. Museums and galleries have more in common with libraries than other venues for a day out, because they are about learning as well as about enjoyment.

We should be proud of Labour’s record in this area and argue for the retention of the current policy. As a progressive movement, we should be debating how future cultural policy could further increase public access to and participation in the arts.

The reintroduction of charging for entry to national museums and galleries would be a regressive act. As Tristram Hunt should know, looking to the past has much to commend it. But living in it does not.

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