Has Free Admission for All to Britain’s National Art Galleries and Museums had its Day?

Jane McChrystal

Britain’s art galleries and museums* face an uncertain future.  They are operating in a national climate of cuts and austerity and, according to Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, stand to lose international arts partnerships and European streams of funding after our departure from the EU.

Museum professionals have responded to their straitened circumstances in various ways, such as opening their collections to wider audiences, both inside and outside their walls, and the use of volunteers and technology.

For instance, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has been committed for some time now to creating child-friendly spaces in its galleries, which means there is less room than ever for exhibitions of its unique collections of art and documents.  Only the more determined researcher can gain access now to NMM’s extensive records of Britain’s long history of sea-faring and ship-building.

Internet reviews of the museum range from the enthusiastic – the kids had a great time! – to the disapproving, with frequent complaints of dumbing-down.

I suspect that, lovely as it is, for children to run around in a lively, safe environment with a sea theme, while parents enjoy a well-earned break, this kind of experience is unlikely to produce future generations with a passion for their maritime heritage.  Some research into how effectively zoos stimulate support for biodiversity among its visitors, when they seem to function largely as pleasure parks, suggests they have little impact on public attitudes (http://londongrip.co.uk/2016/12/the-zoo-the-wild-and-wonderful-tale-of-the-founding-of-london-zoo-by-isobel-charman-a-review-by-jane-mcchrystal/).

As budgets contract, new roles for volunteers are appearing.  They are now to be found in the backroom helping with research, conservation and record-keeping, as well as at front of house welcoming visitors and helping them navigate the galleries.

Volunteers benefit from opportunities to socialise, learn new skills and deepen their knowledge of art, history and science.  However, decreased professional input in the management of national collections must have consequences.

Professionals with a knowledge of the historical context of the artefacts they handle and insight into how researchers look for them, appreciate the need to persevere with tasks which require very close attention to detail, and might look nit-picking to a less well-informed individual.  A carelessly composed record can, in effect, bury a valuable item in the store room of a museum, maybe for good.

Some museums use volunteer photographers to take digital images of their artefacts and make them available on-line.  Digital images can also be employed to create 3D photocopies for the public to collect.  I have seen suggestions that such copies are of equal value to the originals.

If this point of view were to gain wide currency in the museum world, it might be argued that there is no need to open museums to the public, and that would certainly save money.  I can’t understand how anyone with a serious appreciation of the significance of historical items, which have been imprinted with the touch of those who made and possessed them and the marks of their passage through time, can possibly pretend that a piece of moulded plastic may be regarded as equivalent.

If our National institutes remain committed to the idea of displaying artefacts and works of art in real buildings to actual people, some radical thinking might be necessary.

Three of the world’s top art museums are in London: the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate modern, attracting millions of international visitors every year.  Instead of turning our museums into playgrounds or converting their contents into plastic, why not ask them to pay for admission?

A British adult visiting the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence pays an eight Euro entrance fee, while the same visitor to New York will be asked for twenty five Dollars to get into the Museum of Modern Art.

Anyone who travels to a major world city in search of its art and history is most unlikely to reject the chance to visit some of its major repositories because they are expected to make a contribution to the upkeep of buildings which house them and the staff who manage them.

I believe free admission to national museums and art galleries for all is a sacred cow which needs a thorough examination.  It’s blocking the way to a more secure financial future for them all.

Jane McChrystal © 2017.

*National Museum Wales,
British Museum,
Imperial War Museum,
Museum of London,
National Archives,
National Gallery,
National Maritime Museum,
National Museum of Science and Industry,
National Museums Liverpool,
National Museums Scotland,
National Portrait Gallery,
Natural History Museum,
Royal Armouries,
Victoria and Albert Museum