On the face of it, it might seem like a good idea, as befits a socialist government, to make museums free for all. What a fantastic, one-nation move. Classless at last, we can breach the turnstiles in pursuit of a higher-minded life. After all, the Tate does it so well already. Why could the same lean miracle not be enacted at the Science Museum? Because science is not art. The whole Tate can be rehung for less than the cost of one new gallery at the Science Museum. Besides, the Tate can make money from special exhibitions where everyone is charged; the Science Museum, in contrast, where already 47 per cent of visitors enter free, is unable to make such happy use of one-off retrospectives. Art shows are quite cheap to run; not so science museums.
If the deficit from the phased removal of ticket sales over the next three years and the VAT that the museum currently recovers cannot be found, something will have to give. But only two stark options were obvious to us gathered around our committee table. The first was to increase efficiency. But this was no option: over the last five years the museum has tightened its belt like no other national museum. Further reductions would inevitably open the door to the second option: a reduction in quality. It was hard to countenance that the price for making the government look good in the short term was a long-term loss in public benefit.
Looking at the figures, I was baffled. Almost a quarter of the visitors were from overseas. Surely, if they could afford to be tourists, they did not need subsidy from the British taxpayer. And, then, should not the middle classes, who can already pay towards their false teeth, spectacles and prescriptions, stump up for a few hours of science? And would not such changes help the underprivileged, who would otherwise not have been able to afford the Science Museum experience?
One of my colleagues, now a research fellow at my Oxford college, recalls a Road to Damascus-like experience when he first visited the Science Museum. The lad from Wigan had never seen anything like it, and from that moment chemistry became his passion. Surely this is where we should be directing our attentions - not towards a gesture at a meaningless equality, but at truly socially sensitive packages. Some of the money accrued from tourists and our own well-off could subsidise deals that entice people from the housing estates and from far away. Much of the problem of visiting is surely not the entrance fee but the cost of transport and, for more than 50 per cent of visitors, overnight accommodation.
If the Government really believed in its soundbites about education and one nation, then, instead of the flashy quick fix of free museums, it would help us develop imaginative schemes to reach those who would never otherwise come to the Science Museum. Allowing for a middle-class subsidy at the entrance, it must be possible to retain the excellent standards of what is on offer, while ensuring that as many people as possible, at all stages of their lives, are not prevented from tracing the footsteps of my Wigan colleague for simple lack of funds.
The writer is director of The Royal Institution and professor of pharmacology at Oxford University