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The importance of free museums in enriching our culture

The debate over whether entry to UK museums should be free for all has arisen again recently, in response to the news that local authority funding cuts (following the summer budget and Comprehensive Spending Review) are likely to cause a wave of admissions charges introduced by museums and galleries all over the country. Commentators from both sides of the party political divide have weighed in with opinions about the rationale for and potential effects of charging for entry on the sustainability of museums, and their business models and visitor profiles.

This is not the first time this issue has been debated in the UK press since universal free access to state-supported museums became part of UK cultural policy in 2001, under the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith’s stewardship. The policy was questioned six years later, when the shadow secretary, Hugo Swire, suggested that museums and galleries should be allowed the freedom to charge as part of the Conservative manifesto, and the issue has been a perennial item in parliamentary debate. Free admission was however championed as an important audience development tool on the policy’s 10th anniversary, as visitor numbers in the national museums were seen to rise by over 150% over that time period. As one of the few policy continuities between the former Labour government and the Coalition, this was a celebration of muted tones in terms of widening participation but couched in relation of economic benefits through tourism benefits and boosting the UK internationally.

The issue has also been debated in relation to practice elsewhere, investigating the different policies and their effects in other countries. Here, policy rationales reflect national discourses: interestingly, Swedish museums charge as the practicalities of changing the status quo are deemed impractical. When museums have dropped charges in the past there have been concerns about that this was unfair to other sector which make up the creative and cultural infrastructure, such as cinemas and theatre. In France, the temporary removal of charges allowed policy makers to conduct research and inform a partial subsidy for younger visitors only, since the main effect was increase in repeat visits from the same demographics.

In the UK too the rationale for ring-fencing this form of cultural participation has been challenged. Dominic Lawson questioned why short-lived free swimming policy was reversed when the benefits of free museums were mainly felt overseas, with visitor numbers rising highest in terms of foreign tourists, but falling in lower socio-economic groups in the indigenous population from 9 to 7.4 per cent of the total in 2011-2012. This, he implied, only confirmed the interest of the coalition government in pandering to the metropolitan arts elite because it “sounds good” (but ignoring the rest of the population).

Currently the arguments for charging include the potential for increased income to improve the quality of museums, cross-subsidy for other services museums provide (such as making art history films) and better pay to historically over-qualified and under-rewarded museum staff. The biggest problems will not come for the nationals however but for the smaller local museums. In his provocative response, Jonathan Jones concedes many of these will maintain free access as they will never attract enough visitors. He also asserts we shouldn’t confuse the principle of a mixed economy for museums with the debates concerning the privatisation of the NHS.

On face value these seem like sensible arguments to take on board as museums and galleries continue to adjust to the cultural policies of austerity and ready their business models ahead of another series of funding cuts from the centre. However the context of the current debate is more harrowing than in previous years, since it combines these cuts with a prolonged funding bias away from the non-metropolitan regions and depleting resources within local authorities to maintain not just museums and galleries but other public spaces such as libraries and parks. Local authorities, their leisure trusts, commissioned services and cultural partners are scrambling to find ways to plug the gaps and keep assets open.

Sustained investment under New Labour brought about new methodologies for community outreach, curatorial practices and collections review and management aimed at widening participation, access and engagement with museums. The national statistics on cultural participation show a significant rise in museum visiting in the UK population over the last decade, suggesting that along with massive investment in museums these practices have had an effect on increasing participation more broadly than the repeat metropolitan elite. Free access allows visitors to adapt their visiting to their needs, to dip in, go back, skim and immerse themselves. Furthermore, research shows that museums and galleries are valuable to communities even when they are not visited. They have an existence value in addition to their use value which can be understood in economic terms, as demonstrated by the contingent valuation study of the Bolton Museum, Library and Archives services in 2006 (ironically the same museum Jonathan Jones identified in his provocation as an example of the “under-funded, grubby, unloved museums” that would be helped by admissions charges). The argument that charging, firstly, encourages visitors and, secondly, helps them to value their experience more is clearly problematic in the case of local museums who cannot rely on tourism and who will see visitor numbers drop as a result (potentially damaging other revenue streams which may be more sustainable, such as museum cafés and shops as Poole Museum discovered).

Jonathan Jones is almost correct when he states free access “apparently reflects a democratic belief in art for all”. This belief is only half the story, since museums are so much more than art; they are rich sources of knowledge and community memories. Providing free access preserves the principle of shared and equal propriety, of museums as commons, as public good. As others have argued, we all provide for museums’ subsidy through our taxes, but ticket prices will present barriers only to the poor, whilst the rich will continue to have their participation subsidised. The response by the architect of this policy, Chris Smith, stated “our public realm is being impoverished over and over again at the moment” – the gradual erosion of this principle is one more step towards privatising this public good.