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The decline of Britain’s public museums

We queue for blockbuster exhibitions while museums and galleries neglect their core collections. It's a cultural catastrophe, argues Adrian Hamilton

Thank heavens for Neil MacGregor and the British Museum. His latest exercise in popularising Britain's grandest institution in the Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects may not be totally innocent in intention. It has something of the imperialist justification of the institution's holdings to it. But it is a rare and welcome reminder of the simple truth that museums are fundamentally about collections of art and artefacts and what they tell us about the past, about other people and about the stories behind how they were collected.

You wouldn't have thought it from the activities of most museums today. Over the last decade our galleries have become almost entirely devoted to mounting exhibitions, their general collections forgotten, their reserve holdings left untouched and the energy of their directors and keepers devoted to arranging and cataloguing temporary shows. Success today for a museum is not even told in the number of visitors crossing their portals, but the size of the crowds and the length of the queues at their would-be blockbusters. "Biggest ever," "most comprehensive", "revelatory" have become the sales pitch not of the circus and the seaside but some of our most august and most traditionally academic institutions.

We all know one reason. It is money. Since successive Tory and Labour administrations started to squeeze the funds of museums from the Seventies onwards and New Labour abolished entry fees in 2001, exhibitions have become a main means of raising funds. You can charge the earth (£10-12 is the average), you can add on extras from hiring out audioguides (average £5) and catalogues (usually £15-25) plus tea towels, mugs, further reading, postcards and scarves if you have a theme such as the Incas or the Egyptians or Van Gogh's most famous images.

Exhibitions have the added value of being immensely attractive to the media. With good pictures and some tit-bits about items "shown for the first time" and a back-story of pictures rediscovered, along with some history of the personalities involved, you can gain acres of coverage. With luck you may get a television programme or a series to go with it, as the Tate has done with its Rude Britannia show in BBC4.

Read the strategy document which every museum, large or small, now has to produce and there will be investment in spruced up and additional exhibition facilities along with the coffee bar and bookstall expansion as the key items in raising money from commercial activities. The biggest future capital projects of both the British Museum and the V&A involve new galleries for temporary exhibitions (both sorely needed, it should be said).

Money isn't the only reason for this universal drive for the big show, although it's a strong one. The requirement for cash has been accompanied by a pressure for populism. The last government especially imposed on public galleries the obligation to bring in a wider range of visitors as the price of freedom from entry fees. Every institution was asked to survey its customers. Even the Wallace Collection, that temple to refined 18th century Continental art which cannot lend and thus has difficulty borrowing, was instructed to define its visitors by ethnic group. The job of the museum has been seen as no longer a centre of high art and culture which the public visited almost as pilgrims but as sources of entertainment and a little learning for as broad a section of the community as possible.

Exhibitions have become the means of delivering this popularisation, or at least the means by which the institutions can claim they are doing so. They have become the way of generating not just commercial sales but a host of activities, "educational" and other. Witness the success the British Museum has had, and has used so assiduously, with its series on great leaders through history ('Big Brutes' might be a better term) from the First Emperor of China through to Montezeuma.

The Museum's Strategy Document to 2012 puts it plainly: "due largely to the popularity of the First Emperor Exhibition, the outturn for 2007/08 was just over 6 million visits. This cannot be sustained in the short term but will be built to being the norm when the museum has a dedicated special exhibition space."

Fair enough. Museums cannot just be passive institutions showing elitist art to the educated middle classes. "In the room Women Come and Go/Talking of Michelangelo" as TS Eliot phrased it. If the taxpayer is to subsidise art, elected ministers have a right to insist that as many as possible get their money's worth. No one should doubt the revolution that has been wrought among museums by the extra funds and the policy thrust of the last decade.

You can argue with the obsession with targets in terms of visitor numbers, despair of the decline in research and academic analysis of our institutions as they seek to exceed their quotas. But there is little doubt that the change in policy after free entry has immeasurably improved gallery going. Going to a museum, particularly the smaller museums around the country, is a quite different experience today than a generation ago, thanks to the money spent on better facilities and the activities promoted by temporary exhibitions. The limited run show has become a primary means of sustaining an atmosphere of continuous novelty and widening the audience.

The commercial pressure on museums to show and to lend their holdings for displays abroad has made London into the natural centre for the big international exhibitions, overtaking France and Germany in the glamour stakes. Over a year there is very little that London, and Britain as a whole, miss in terms of travelling shows. Nor should one underestimate the effect of pushing the major galleries into sending more of their reserve collections around the country, usually in the form of thematic displays.

The trouble is that the tail has now begun to wag the dog. Exhibition programmes have been increasingly directed at catchy titles and attractive themes rather than gatherings of objects with a genuine desire to open up knowledge and understanding. The nadir was probably reached last year when the Imperial War Museum, an institution founded to record and project the experience of the First World War, promoted itself with a special show of "James Bond", his drinks, films and girls, for which they charged £8 entry. But then take the Tate's main offerings at the moment, Tate Britain's "Rude Britannia" and Tate Modern's "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera". They're not bad exhibitions. They're just not very good, their themes diffuse and their exhibits of very mixed quality. Although both have some striking images, it is hard not to think by the end that they would have been better organised as smaller, more careful displays from the government's own holdings – and thus offered free to the visitor rather than at the £10 charge imposed by the Tate.

It's not even as though the visitor is that well served on these occasions. Publications in Britain are restricted to hugely expensive catalogues, there, one suspects, in the interests of the organisers rather than the customers. There is rarely, if ever, the kind of modestly priced booklet that accompanies shows in France and elsewhere on the Continent. The audio guides are of variable quality, without the spur of any media review of them although a substantial proportion of those attending use them. Postcards are usually restricted to the museum cards of objects borrowed from abroad

Of course there is room for the big show but Britain has a number of galleries devoted to temporary exhibitions, most notably the Royal Academy, which has made a huge success of its programmes in the last decade, as well as the Barbican and Hayward Gallery in London and places such as Compton Verney outside. Deprive the state museums of the blockbuster and leave it to others for the paying show and I'm not sure the visitor would be that short changed.

The state's museums would feel short changed. But is the pursuit of crowd pullers really what they should be all about? There is a sense anyway that the day of the blockbuster is over. The crowd didn't snake round the building for the Tate's big Constable show as far back as 1991. Instead they came for the more focused exhibition of Constable's "Great Landscapes" in 2006, for Picasso-Matisse in 2002 and for Monet in the Nineties – displays elucidating a particular theme or period.

What academics and critics like is exhibitions of intellectual rigour which establish the credentials of paintings with authority and bring them together – hence the disappointment with the Michelangelo Drawings at the British Museum in 2006, which was absolutely loved by the crowds but was criticised for sliding over questions of authenticity in pursuit of popular appeal. Hence also the long succession of exhibitions devoted to the full work of a single artist, which academics have looked to for attributions and analyses but the public seem increasingly bored with.

What most ordinary visitors want is really to be educated about a period or a culture. Hence the time spent reading the captions rather than looking at the objects themselves. This may seem somewhat vulgar to the more aesthetic minds. But it is part of the purpose of the modern gallery. It's just that it is not necessary to hold a grand show to achieve this. Many of the most interesting exhibitions have been made out of the existing holdings of a museum, supplemented with a few borrowings and most free to the visitor. The British Museum's succession of wonderful exhibitions in its Japanese gallery and its displays in Prints and Drawing along with the one room examinations of an artist or theme in the National Galley and the thematic displays at the British Library are cases in point. Some of the best small displays of the last year such as Christen Kobke at the National Gallery and the prehistoric Japanese Dogu culture at the British Museum have, for various reasons, been free (and, in the Dogu case, received precious little media attention as a result) while some of the smaller galleries – one thinks particularly of Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Courtauld – have been able to launch really exciting temporary displays as part of their general admission price.

One's fear is that it's precisely these free exhibitions, the occasions when keepers work with the gallery's own holding to point up a theme or explore an issue, which are being sacrificed to the big paying show. Already the number of such offerings seem to be going down in the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery. Go to the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, both big museums with strong policies towards their collections and their expansion, and there will be some half-dozen small, and not so small, temporary shows free with entry. Go to the V&A and it has three main temporary exhibitions for all of which it is charging.

Money talks, of course, and it tends to absorb the attention as well as the resources of an organisation. Take away paying opportunities and our free galleries will lose a substantial source of income and growth. But it is time to rethink this. I have long been a fervent believer in free entry to state facilities. That the imagination of one child (or adult) should be fired wandering round a museum seems to me infinitely more valuable than a lifetime's speeches by Michael Gove and Ed Balls. Free entry has brought a huge expansion in the customer base. But it has been at a cost of directing museums to showmanship and to commercial avenues of income at the expense of concentrating on their own collections and adding to them. The funds available for purchase are derisory. The attention of keepers has been directed to the numbers passing through the doors.

Given all the constraints on public finance, maybe we should now be considering the reintroduction of fees for museums. Children could remain free, the elderly given concessions and, like India and other Asian countries, ratepayers and taxpayers could be given lower priced access. Exhibitions could then be offered free within, as they are in Dulwich and the Courtauld. There are losses in the move but it might – should indeed – enable the museums to concentrate on their primary task, which is displaying and augmenting their own holdings.