Tiffany Jenkins: Free museums - a fine example to set the world

AS MUCH as it pains me to say it, the commitment to free entry to national museums, instigated by the last Labour government, is one policy that I not only support, but think was enlightened.

Back in 1997, Labour argued that in order to broaden the range of people visiting museums and galleries, there should be no charge to visit. Up until then, entrance fees could set you back between £5-10 a person, which adds up, especially if you want to take the whole family, or go more than once, which, given that most of the institutions are large and extensive, is likely.

The then culture secretary, Chris Smith, reflected that their policy was due to the fact that, “these were the great treasure houses of the nation, that they held our art, our history, our science”, and that they were places where we, “found out about our past, and treasured that past”. That is why they should be free, he argued, and he was right.

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For once, a consensus. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales agreed with the English politicians, and all began to fund free entry at the national museums which they support. From 2001, free entry was introduced across Britain.

Very quickly, visitor numbers rose dramatically. This is not the only reason for removing charging – far from it – but it is worthy of note. Attendance increased by more than 150 per cent, from 7.2 million in 2000-01, to nearly 18m in 2010-11. At the National Museums of Scotland alone, visitor numbers rose by 27 per cent. In 2000–2001; the final year of charging, they had 569,341. In 2001 – 2002; the first year of free admission, these soared to 724,732. Most recently, figures for 2011-2012 stand at 1,812,134. That’s an impressive rise. It now vies with Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow for the title as the most visited museum outwith of London.

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Today, as austerity continues and shows no sign of abating, questions have been raised about the policy. Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, has forcefully argued that the income raised by charging would be very useful, especially to museums outside of London, and that, in particular, the funds could be used to contribute to the much depreciated curatorial budgets.

He is right, to a point. Charging would bring in money – welcome, as there are serious financial pressures to alleviate – with managers at both National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums Scotland saying they are struggling with frozen budgets. Times are hard.

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But, by giving up on free entrance, we stand to lose more than we would gain. What is at stake is the idea of who owns these collections and who they are for. When they are free, it is clear that they are ours – that they belong to the people.

The history of free access has a fine pedigree. The British Museum was, from the beginning, an institution with the public in mind. Hans Sloane, the collector whose death triggered the foundation of the museum, specified as a condition of sale in his will that the objects should be held, “for the use of learned and studious men both native and foreign”.

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In January 1759, the museum opened – for free – to “all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the [collections].” It was for, “satisfying the desires of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons”. Any adult could visit, in theory, although they had to apply in writing and be given an appointment. It was an important first step to access for everyone, even if children were forbidden until 1837. When Kelvingrove opened at the turn of the twentieth century, initially named the Palace of Fine Arts, it was, from the very start, free, having been founded on donations from the city’s industrialists with the aim of improving and elevating the lives of ordinary people.

And today, it remains one of the most popular attractions in the country.

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It was unusual in Europe, with the exception of Britain and France, for museums and galleries to be quite so open to common people. A German visitor, Karl Philip Moritz, went to the British Museum in 1782 and found the clientele remarkable, commenting that he came across, “the lowest classes of the people of both sexes”, explaining that this was because, “it is the property of the Nation, everyone has the same right to see it that another has.” That ideal is what we give up, if we give up on free access.

The journalist Dominic Lawson has complained that many of the millions of visitors are not British tax payers, that they are tourists. But this is not a problem. It is, instead, a positive example to the world of how to value the achievements of mankind. Many of the art and artefacts on display are from far and wide.

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When you attend National Museums Scotland you will encounter Ancient Egypt, Tibetan tankhas, and objects from the early exploration of the Pacific, including pieces taken during Captain Cook’s voyages. There is a tremendous sound archive of native music from Africa, the Middle East, and India, recorded in the 20th century. The heritage of the world can be found here, and it is right that it is on show to everyone, regardless of where they are from. Charging has a recent and dubious history.

It was in the 1980s that the Conservative government pressured national museums to charge for admission, to make them less dependent on government funding. About half of the major national museums gave in, and began charging, with the consequence that during the following 15 years, their visitor numbers declined. When the Victoria and Albert Museum charged, their visitor numbers halved.

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The arguments for free access need to be restated, the naysayers challenged. Reintroducing charging would cost us far too much.