A much too private view

Why are our museums more shut than open on Sunday?
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When the poet James Fenton wrote these laconic lines: The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford Is shut

22 hours a day and all day Sunday, and should not be confused

With its academic brother, full of fossils

And skeletons of bearded seals ...

he was actually celebrating the quirkiness of an institution that only allowed the public in for a few hours a week. Holidaymakers in the UK could be forgiven for taking a less charitable view of our eccentricity.

Drive past the British Museum in London at half past one on a Sunday afternoon and you will see hordes of hapless tourists lined up at the iron gates. This not because of some record-breaking exhibition that obliges the curators to limit numbers - but because on Sunday, the BM doesn't actually open until half past two. On the one day when everybody has time and the inclination to visit it, our most famous museum is only open half the day.

Nor is this ludicrous situation unique to Great Russell Street. The Tate Gallery operates a similar opening schedule: 2pm on Sundays. Right now the Tate has a hit exhibition on its hands, a retrospective of the American abstract expressionist, Willem de Kooning. The Tate's late Sunday opening means people are still queuingat four, or even 5pm: the time most people want to be enjoying tea and cake rather than waiting in the mizzle on Millbank.Moreover, the message to weekenders from the capital's museums and galleries seems to be an eloquent Sod You - surprisingwhen you consider that the city's largest industry is tourism.

The National Gallery opens only between two and six on Sundays, as do the Courtauld Institute and the Wallace Collection. The National Portrait Gallery is a bit better - it opens at noon.Still, the list goes on. What makes this attitude paradoxical is that some institutions seem to have no problem with extended hours: the Hayward has special evening sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and opens all day Sunday, the V&A has been operating Sunday opening for about a year with great success; and the Science Museum is happy to open its doors all weekend.

These last are also museums that charge visitors, unlike, for example, the British Museum. Is there a connection? A spokesman for the BM thinks not: "Sunday hours are a traditional thing,from when people went to church. We are currently looking at bringing forward our opening time. But it's problematic." The Tate is more vague: "I think it's something to do with the unions. And the pay for wardens, or something." The National Gallery, meanwhile, denies any call for Sunday opening. "We looked into it about a year ago. But there didn't seem to be a demand. We do have evening openings, for special exhibitions."

Perhaps this attitude is a metropolitan affliction, thatliving cheek- by-jowl with some of the world's greatest art treasures has made Londoners blas about the special importance of those artworks to others. The Tates outside London would seem to bear this out. Its St Ives outpost makes much more effort, opening all day, all week. The same goes for the Tate in Liverpool. In Scotland the situation is more confused: the much-admired Burrell Collection in Glasgow opens nearly all day Sunday; whereas the National Gallery in Edinburgh adopts the ridiculous two-to-five on Sundays policy.

Abroad they do things differently. Nearly all the great museums of Europe haveall-daySunday opening. TheLouvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Prado, the Hermitage all open throughout the weekend. In the US, New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian in Washington, even the John Paul Getty museum in LA, employ curators who struggle out of bed before Sunday lunch. They have days off, of course, but usually Monday. Who wants to visit a museum on Monday? About the only country with similarly contrary opening hours to Britain's is Italy, but it has more paintings than people, so problems may have more to do with under-staffing than under-achieving.

Take a straw poll of the huddled masses skulking outside the British Museum, like les jacqueries at the gates of Versailles, and there's no doubt that British curators are doing us all a disservice. One American tourist put it this way: "Your pubs are shut, you can't buy liquor, the museum only opens halfway through the afternoon - what's with British Sundays?"

A young French girl, Natalie, standing in the queue with her disconsolate boyfriend, was equally terse: "When do you Londoners go to the museum? In Paris everybody goes on Sunday morning, it's the best time."

Most galling of all was the comment of a naturalised Greek man, taking his son to see the Egyptian mummies: "I remember when Melina Mercouri was trying to get the Elgin marbles back to Greece. The argument used against her was thatno one would see them in Athens." He gestures contemptuously at the BM's locked gates. "So, tell me, who gets to see them now?"