Joe Wilson: Why Scottish museums should remain free-to-enter

A visitor to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum at a jack Vettriano exhibition. Picture: Robert Perry
A visitor to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum at a jack Vettriano exhibition. Picture: Robert Perry
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MUSEUMS have played a key role in rejuvenating whole neighbourhoods. Making them more inaccessible to the public by charging for entry risks reversing Scotland and the UK’s civic fabric, says Joe Wilson

A little over a year ago I attended the first in a series of “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum. The theme of this particular event was accessibility and how the institution could make changes to its operations in order to cope with its increasing visitor traffic. As you’d expect from a public forum, there were good ideas and terrible ones too, and it is interesting to see that both the best and worst of those tabled at the event have come to prominence in recent weeks.

The best idea was undoubtedly that the British Museum needs a bigger entrance. Its current size presents the dual negatives of being both impractically small for the sheer volume of visitors who pass through it and distinctly unwelcoming when viewed from the gates of its main entrance on Great Russell Street. I suggested at the time that creating new entranceways would negate the aura of privacy created by small doors atop grand flights of stairs, as IM Pei’s pyramid has done at Paris’ Louvre, and by the 2011 refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland. The British Museum is reportedly considering widening its existing two-metre front door in order to improve visitor flow, which may do little still to increase the sense of “welcome” portrayed by its problematic entrance – but it’s an improvement none the less.

Speaking of welcome, a consideration that certainly isn’t is the idea proposed by one member of the audience that the museum could increase its income by charging “foreign visitors” to enter. This was rightly met with groans of derision at the time so it is surprising to see it now being discussed. To be more specific, the British Museum is considering levying a charge for the admission of commercial tour groups. As annoying as they can often be, standing around looking confused with their matching caps and selfie sticks, this is discriminatory and unacceptable.

Despite its name, the British Museum is, in its own words, “a museum of the world, for the world.” So to charge some of the world and not the other is unfair. I appreciate the grievance that these tour operators in London are profiting from their free service, but any charge to the companies will be passed onto their customers, creating an indirect entry fee. If tourists want to pay someone not to tell them how simple it is to get the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and walk around the corner, more fool them.

The continued diversity of the British Museum’s collection is also largely predicated on the fact that it is exhibited for free. Take the high profile Parthenon Marbles for example. One of the museums key counter-arguments in the repatriation debate is that the objects are part of the greater heritage of all civilisation, not just Greece, and they are more ethically placed in an institution that is easier to visit and won’t charge visitors to see them. Having already surrendered the argument that the marbles cannot be moved by loaning the statue of Ilissos to The Hermitage in St Petersburg earlier this year, you would imagine they’d be keen not to surrender a further, and more legitimate claim to their retention.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s art-loving answer to Jeremy Clarkson, goes further, stating: “tourists should be giving the British Museum money, and so should the rest of us.” He believes UK museums should be striving to emulate their fee-charging counterparts in France and Spain, not the other way around. He is wrong. Museums are struggling financially due to government cuts which could see many lose as much as 40 per cent of their funding, not because people aren’t paying for tickets. Free culture is not only desirable, but it also works – the MoMAs PS1 in New York has recently used a grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation to waive entrance fees to citizens for a full year.

Glasgow is another great example. Currently playing host to the 2015 Turner Prize, the eyes of many in the art world will be in and on the city at a time when a commitment to the arts made during its European City of Culture year in 1990 is really coming to fruition. Glasgow now boasts a world-class civic museum service offering nine different free museums and galleries. Investment in these services was predicated on a trickle-down service economy that would rejuvenate a city struggling socially and economically with its post-industrial status. Take Finnieston, for example: it is not by chance that the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s 2006 refurbishment coincided with what was the beginning of a blossoming bar and restaurant scene, one that has gone on to provide a leisure infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of The Hydro arena and cemented the area as Glasgow’s chief entertainment destination.

While the museum cannot take all of the credit for this, along with the Museum of Transport (then still residing at Kelvin Hall) it provided a cultural spine upon which to flesh out the skeletal area with the “cappuccino economy” City of Culture 1990 had aimed to provide by driving visitors into it. Look at any of the other Glasgow postcodes experiencing similar rejuvenations and you will find cultural institutions close by; Partick and Dumbarton Road served by the new Riverside Museum, Dennistoun in walking distance from the People’s Palace and St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life, and the Tramway Gallery and Burrell Collection in Shawlands.

Most observable of all however is that all of these venues are free, to everyone, and they always should be. The public funding which has kept them so has helped improve these parts of the city for residents and visitors alike. The cut-happy government should recognise this. Diverting the public money that keeps museums free out of the sector and then forcing them to recoup it through entry fees actually costs people more. Individuals like Jonathan Jones would be wise to remember that it is museums who should be charged with bettering peoples lives, not the public for the privilege.