Museums are expensive to run, with the costs of acquisitions, conservation, maintenance, staff salaries and special exhibitions all weighing heavily upon their budgets. In many cases much of their funding comes from the government, whether at national or local level, with the remainder made up through endowments, income from museum shops and other commercial ventures, private donations and sponsorship, and, very often, through entry fees. In the 1990s almost all of Britain's museums charged for admission but a few of the leading institutions (e.g. the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery) became free as a result of Labour government policy. Nevertheless, most museums worldwide, including the likes of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, charge admission fees. Proponents of free museum entrance fees argue that free museums encourage attendance and therefore increase education and awareness of state heritage. Opponents respond that there is little evidence that free prices encourage new attendees rather than repeat visitors and that state funding should be used elsewhere.
Museums preserve and display our artistic, social, scientific and political heritage. Everyone should have access to such important cultural resources as part of active citizenship, and because of the educational opportunities they offer to people of every age. Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, claims ‘it’s almost a moral duty that museums should be free’ (Smith, 2006). If museums are not funded sufficiently by the government, they will be forced to charge for entry, and this will inevitably deter many potential visitors, especially the poor and those whose educational and cultural opportunities have already been limited. Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London declined by 13% after it started charging for admission. Free access is essential to provide freedom of cultural and educational opportunity (Garrett, 2001).
Not everyone wishes to visit museums, which are essentially a form of entertainment for the middle classes and tourists. The majority of adults never visit a museum, preferring instead leisure pursuits such as football, the cinema or clubbing. As Philippe de Montebello has wondered, if the public can pay for other events, ‘what is it about art that shouldn’t be paid for?’ (Smith, 2006) Why should they have to pay for their chosen entertainment while subsidising the generally wealthier middle class through their taxes? Tourists pay no taxes here and so gain a free ride at the expense of domestic taxpayers. The state provides educational opportunities for all through free schooling, which often includes free museum trips. If free museum entry were considered a cultural right, shouldn’t the state make theatre tickets free as well?
Museums are a crucial source of inspiration and education for our increasingly important creative industries (e.g. art, design, fashion, and architecture). As the Secretary of the National Union of Teachers described, ‘free access means that every child can benefit from the treasure chest…regardless of the depth of the parental pocket’ (Russell & Taylor, 2007). Free access is an investment in the future of both the education and creative sectors of the economy and therefore has long-term benefits in securing prosperity for the whole of society. Similarly, tourism is an important sector of our economy and many visitors will be deterred from visiting our country if they think it will be very expensive to visit its great museums and galleries. Tourists do contribute hugely to government revenues through the indirect taxes they pay and the jobs they generate, tourism is a £115bn industry,(BBC News, 2010) so free museum access to support the tourism industry is a sensible investment.
Such potential and economic benefits are dubious and rely upon access to collections that are excellent in their content and in the way in which they are conserved and displayed. If museums are to be funded entirely out of public money, the pressure on any government’s budget from the demands of hospitals, schools, pensions, etc. will inevitably mean that museums will come a poor second, resulting in under-funding and poorer museums at the end of the process. This will not help our creative industries or tourism. It is excellence rather than the cost of visiting attractions which attracts tourists in any case; acquisition budgets have fallen in both London and Edinburgh over the last few years, our national galleries continually outbid by foreign rivals as they seek to keep their collections contemporary (Hunt, 2011).
In the UK, Labour government policy resulted in some of the leading national museums ending admissions charges. Their policy was in response to evidence from the 1980s that suggested museums that started charging visitors ‘saw their numbers plummet on average by a third – and never fully recover’ (Barrie, 2001). Labour’s policy shift had the effect of increasing visitor numbers greatly, proving that free entry is beneficial in increasing public exposure to culture. This can be shown by the UK having the highest number of visitors to art museums of any country based upon The Art Newspaper’s figures for top 100 visited galleries in 2010.(The Art Newspaper, 2011) Other countries should follow this example in order to draw more people into their own national museums.
Entry figures did increase when the UK scrapped admissions charges at some museums, but studies have found that this was not because more people actually visited the museums. Instead similar numbers of people as before chose to make more individual visits to the same museums, pushing up admissions numbers (Martin, 2003). In this way subsidising free admissions acts as a giveaway of public money to the privileged middle classes, who would in any case pay to attend the same institutions.
The contributions of government funding have been shown to be capable of sustaining the costs of a museum, preventing those costs being passed on to the public in the form of admissions charges. The examples of the British Labour government funding national museums has been noted above. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington was set up partially with government funding and partially with private funds, ensuring it has remained free since its opening in 2004 (Democracy Now, 2004). In 2011, China also announced that from 2012 all of its national museums would become publicly-funded and cease charging admissions fees (Zhu & Guo, 2011
Museums charges cannot be offset by governments without using taxpayers money to subsidize the activities of only a portion of the population. As such, the actual costs of the museums are passed onto the population in the form of tax, rather than admissions charges. This way however, all of the population is charged, instead of purely those whom utilize museums.
If museums are entirely funded by the state, they will have little incentive to increase visitor numbers and to make their collections exciting and accessible for all. The need to attract paying customers concentrates the minds of museum and gallery directors upon the needs of the public and produces imaginative and popular exhibitions, as well as adding value through guided tours, lectures and tie-ins with television programmes. All of this ensures that more people, not less visit museums. In addition, if museums were made entirely reliant upon public funding, it is likely that money would be channeled to those institutions the government felt were most important, forcing smaller, local or more specialist museums to close. While it is an extreme example totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany point to the dangers of allowing politicians control over interpretations of national identity and presentations of other cultures. Even a much more liberal government is likely to want the arts that it funds to represent it in a good light.
Museums have a valuable role in preserving and transmitting a nation’s history and heritage to new generations. Free access will encourage more people to find out about their country and help to promote feelings of national unity and identity, while promoting greater understanding and acceptance of foreign cultures. A museum’s admission policy ‘encodes the institution’s core values’ (Smith, 2006); free admission symbolizes the relationship between museum and community, rather than that between museum and collections in for-profit establishments. A report by the London School of Economics in 2006 found that in the year free admissions were introduced in the UK, visitor figures jumped from 27 to 42 million (Russell & Taylor, 2007). As such, there is no evidence to suggest visitor figures will decrease with state-funding.
Today television plays a much greater role in transmitting our cultural heritage and a sense of national identity. Usually free to the viewer, it reaches into almost every home, both rich and poor. Most countries recognise television’s power by giving broadcasters a duty to include cultural and educational programming. It is a far more effective way of reaching a mass public than expensively subsidising every museum on the off-chance that people will enthusiastically flock to them. Often, inspirational television programmes will increase the popularity of relevant museum exhibits – for example, Britain’s historical and geological museums saw greatly increased attendances after the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs series (Wealden News, 2007, p.7).
Television is not an adequate substitute for widely accessible museums. At a museum a visitor can choose what to see and for how long they wish to study it; television is a much more passive medium making the viewer dependent upon the interests and interpretation of the producer - it is likely to present sensationalist and controversial material in a bid for ratings, for example. Nor can a two-dimensional medium compare to viewing an object, even a flat painting, from many different angles, or even handling it, in a museum. Furthermore, museum trips encourage activity, not merely physical but creative; TV is passive entertainment; museums are increasingly active, imploring the museum goer to participate in the exhibits.
Clearly this is a question of balance, as the government cannot afford to fund every activity of possible value, especially given the social and economic costs of increased taxation. It is reasonable for governments to focus their attention upon schools and higher education in an attempt to provide more equality of opportunity. A MORI poll in 2002 found that though visitor numbers to museums had increased, the profile of a typical museum was still the same; the same people were simply going more often (Martin, 2003, p.4). Funding the middle-class’ museum habit is not a worthwhile taxpayer cause. In any case, there are alternatives to state funding in the private sector – today many companies or private patrons sponsor museum exhibitions, acquisitions and new building work. This philanthropy is linked to a desire to make a difference, so it is unlikely to be strong when the government is seen as the source of all funding – it is most advanced in the USA for example, where government funding is very limited compared to other developed countries.
Education is not just in schools, parents also have an important role in broadening their children’s cultural horizons through museum visits, among other forms of creative and intellectual stimulus. Children may have free entry at many museums, but parents are often charged high prices, deterring family visits, especially from the poor and from those families who do not prize education so highly. Again, this is an equal opportunity issue, being one of the reasons why middle-class children outperform their less-privileged peers academically.
Barrie, D. (2001, January 27). Let the people in! Retrieved May 31, 2011, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/jan/27/books.guardianreview5
Democracy Now. (2004, September 30). Museum of the American Indian Opens. Retrieved June 21, 2011, from Democracy Now: http://www.democracynow.org/2004/9/30/museum_of_the_american_indian_opens
Garrett, J. (2001, May 2). V&A gets £2m to scrap entrance fee. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/vampa-gets-pound2m-to-...
Hunt, T. (2011, March 6). We need to start charging for museums and galleries again. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/06/tristram-hunt-entran...
Januszczak, W. (2008, April 27). Why is the Imperial War Museum celebrating James Bond? Retrieved May 31, 2011, from The Times: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual...
Martin, A. (2003, March). The Impact of Free Entry to Museums. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from MORI: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/541_sri-the-impact-of-free...
Russell, B., & Taylor, J. (2007, June 18). Why museums must stay free. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/why-museums-must-stay-free...
Smith, R. (2006, July 22). Should Art Museums Always Be Free? There's Room for Debate. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/22/arts/design/22admi.html?n=Top%2FRefere...
Wealden News. (2007, September). Sir David Attenborough at Maidstone Museum. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from Wealden News: http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CEIQFjAE&url=http%...
Zhu, L., & Guo, S. (2011, February 11). Libraries, museums to be free to public. Retrieved June 21, 2011, from China Daily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-02/11/content_11980475.htm