Sunday, May 24, 2015

Should museums charge for entry?

For goodness' sake, I hear you cry, why is she bothering with that. Why is she not writing the promised second analysis of the election and its aftermath? Well, I am, dear readers but that is taking a somewhat longer time than I had hoped. I am also aware that this subject is not on the agenda at the moment. John Whittingdale, the new Culture Commissar Secretary having got the BBC in his sights is unlikely to take on another lot of big beasts for the time being. It will, however, come up again before this Parliament is out for the same reason that the BBC licensing needs to be looked at: the present situation is untenable and the museums and art galleries that really are part of this country's cultural fabric are suffering.

There are, of course, many issues to be raised, not least the question of tax reform that would make it easier for people to donate large sums to the various cultural institutions. They do a great deal of it already but why not make it easier to do so? The answer is that the Treasury would not like it but, maybe, we should stop listening to the Treasury.

In the end I do not think that the big institutions in London and other cities can survive without some money from the taxpayer; they do not anywhere else, not even in the US. The question is how that money is to be administered and what other funding can be raised.

This is the point at which the question of paying for entry is raised, only to be dismissed through various spurious reasons. We already pay through our taxes, I have heard from one person. Yes we do but we also pay for various theatres and opera houses and companies, yet there is no suggestion that seats at the National Theatre or Covent Garden be free. Furthermore, a good many visitors do not pay those taxes, being visitors in this country but the solution to that, seriously proposed by people who ought to know better, that there should be a system of some people paying but not others on the basis of whether they are contributing anything in direct taxation, would require the setting up of such a complicated bureaucracy as to make one's head spin.

If people are made to pay for entry to museums and art galleries they will stop going is the favourite refrain, which somehow manages to ignore the fact that almost every other country charges for entry and, apparently, people still go. In fact, in almost every other city in Western Europe and North America one will find more local people as a proportion of visitors than in London, where the large museums and art galleries are overwhelmingly filled with tourists. The only other place that might be comparable in that respect is Paris.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Budapest. While there I went to see a very fine exhibition of József Rippl-Rónay and Maillol at the Hungarian National Gallery, where visitors have to pay. As usual, the place was full and, though there were many tourists, the majority were Hungarians.

On Thursday I went to see the superb exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery; it was quite well attended and most of the visitors were local. This, I find, is quite normal: while the permanent collections, which are free at the point of entry, tend to be filled by tourists, the exhibitions that have to be paid for get a far higher proportion of local visitors.

Could it be that we should think counter-intuitively and accept that more people will visit museums and art galleries if (or when) they start charging for entry?


  1. I remember, Helen, one day you were advocating poor old 'Dippy' residing in the NHM. Keeping it in the front hall for so many decades doesn't seem to have much of practical or marketing or even educational sense, and ultimately, your argument was that it's just good.

    For about the same reason I would say that having free access to public museums in the UK is a rare example when something that you get for free is just good. And it is so good that I struggle to see how changing this can do it any better.

    The closest example, that comes to my mind, is an old custom that should you ask for a glass of fresh water at any pub in England you are supposed to be offered it for free.

    It's just nice to have.

    1. I am not convinced most pubs will give you water unless you order something else as well. Not sure they ever did, well not for people. Horses and dogs, yes.

      My argument in favour of Dippy did involve, as I recall, comments about children learning about dinosaurs and being enthused by the subject because of his presence, which is a little more than just saying that it is good and that's that.

      The problem with free entry is twofold: it does not necessarily attract local people (I struggle with the definition but I am sure you understand what I mean) whereas paid exhibitions do; and also that the financial structure is untenable with large institutions of national and world-wide importance suffering. Some rethinking is needed and the possibility of paid entry should be part of it even if it is then discarded for good reasons. Of course, tax reform should also be part of it.

  2. Remembering my glorious visits to the Motherland all too long ago, I was very happy that entry to the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, and the V&A were free — this last particularly so, as it was relatively close to my hotel in Earl’s Court so I could bask in its glories regularly, especially when I had to get off the busy sidewalks of Brompton. I made a small donation to its coffers on my final visit. (If memory serves, I paid to enter the Banqueting Hall and Westminster Abbey, but the fees were within reason and happily given up.)

    If admissions were charged and weekly passes were on offer (at reasonable rates for tourists), I would certainly have made the investment, at least for the V&A. Perhaps free entry is my one concession to the Blair ministry?

    1. It was free before Blair. Periodically there have been half-hearted attempts at introducing entry fees but they were never properly worked out and were swiftly abolished. Naturally, if museums are allowed to introduce entry fees they will, I assume, work out various systems of weekly, monthly and annual passes. It would require thinking and some studying of other countries' systems.