Arts & Media: Extra funding saves British Museum from introducing entrance fees

The Government will give the British Museum financial help to prevent it introducing admission charges. David Lister, Arts News Editor, reveals that the first stage in the campaign to safeguard free admission is on the point of victory.

An increase in funds to the British Museum will be announced next week, The Independent has learned. It is specifically designed to avoid the best known museum in the country, and arguably in the world, having to impose admission charges for the first time in its 230 year history.

The change of mind by the Government, which was on the verge of saying it could not give any museums financial help to prevent charging, follows a high-profile campaign since we revealed 10 days ago that the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, had failed to convince the Treasury of the need to pump extra money into national museums and galleries.

The British Museum's trustees, who include the Prince of Wales, will meet on Saturday. Introducing charges was on their agenda if no extra financial help was forthcoming. They will now hear that a substantial increase in grant is on its way.

The campaign to keep free admission continues today with a letter in The Independent signed by 17 artists, including David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor. They write that museums have been their studies. The artists short-listed for last night's Turner Prize also added their weight to the campaign, helping to present a petition to the Treasury.

While the British Museum is almost certain to be spared the immediate need for compulsory charges, the problem remains for the National Gallery, Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, the remaining national collections that still do not charge.

Of these, the Tate is in the most severe financial trouble and the Government is understood to be looking urgently at a way to help it. The trustees have not yet ruled out charging at the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside, London, due to open in 2000. Tate director Nicholas Serota has also indicated that charging at the Tate at Millbank is a possibility unless more money is found.

Whitehall sources say that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Chancellor Gordon Brown have been surprised by the strength of the campaign to keep free admissions, but remain reluctant to put more money into the arts.

Nevertheless, campaigners will be reminding Mr Blair of the speech he made in opposition at the Mansion House earlier this year. He said then: "We are concerned about the introduction of admission charges in national museums. The evidence suggests that high charges can lead to a big decline in attendance."

Government help to the British Museum is certain to provoke anger among those museums that already charge.

Dr Alan Borg, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said he would not tolerate a "hand out" being given the British Museum while his own museum received no extra help.