Visits to Government-sponsored museums that have scrapped entrance fees have more than doubled since 2001, figures show.
The Department of Culture, Media & Sport’s (DCMS) figures released this week show 43 million people visiting Government-sponsored museums between 2010-2011, a rise of 151% from 10 years prior. With Thursday marking the 10th anniversary of the Labour’s administration’s decision to scrap charges at the nation’s museums, it would appear to mark a success for the Government’s plans to widen access to the UK’s cultural treasures.
South Kensington treasures, The Natural History Museum and V&A both scrapped visitor fees a decade ago and have seen visitor increases of around 179%. Top of the class however was the National Maritime Museum with a 204% surge in numbers. The British Museum and National Gallery have never charged for admission.
The wealth of free museums and galleries in the capital is a huge boon for the tourism industry, with the UK now hosting three of the top five most visited museums and galleries in the world. They are key attractions for many international visitors, bringing in £1bn of revenue from overseas. In contrast there are often steep charges at major museums abroad, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art ($25 - £21) and the Louvre in Paris ($10 - £8.50).
Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum says the figures are a “fantastic testament to the huge public appetite for museums… and the success of the free admission policy.”
Despite this, the surge in visitor numbers has meant an increase in running costs, with longer hours just one extra strain. Museums are upfront in asking for donations, and have increased the number of refreshment areas to supplement rising bills. There is also the dilemma of temporary “blockbuster” exhibitions, such as the British Museum’s “The First Emperor” exhibition of 2007, which brought 12 warriors from China’s famous terracotta army over to London. Special exhibitions charge an entrance fee but Michael Fayle, chairman of the British Association of Friends of Museums asks: “One wonders whether [having paid-for exhibitions] is in the spirit of free access that everyone wants to achieve.”
He also suggested the visitors may find their museum experience compromised by overcrowding. Art critic William Feaver claimed to be hit by a bad case of “gallery rage” earlier this year when visiting Tate Modern’s record breaking Gaugin exhibition. The National Gallery’s current Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition has had to reduce its number of timed admissions from 230 to 180 in an attempt to quell increasingly vocal complaints of overcrowding and a black market in exhibition tickets is apparently blossoming.
There are also questions about how visitor numbers are gauged when there are no till receipts. With visitor numbers to free institutions counted by “self-completion methodology”, how much the figures are distorted by those who come through the doors merely to use the toilets or meet friends out of the cold is open to debate.
Such concerns haven't swayed the Government though - the coalition’s Spending Review last year put in place continued sponsorship of the nation’s museums. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the policy “ensures that culture is for everyone… I am particularly proud that we have secured the future of free museums despite the current financial climate.”
By Chris Mapleston