Free entry swells child visits to museums

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The Independent Online
ADMISSIONS to Britain's major museums and galleries have soared following the Government's decision to grant free entry to children.

The number of child visitors rose by 26 per cent in the first six months of the scheme, with some museums seeing a 71 per cent rise, according to figures seen by The Independent.

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will use the statistics as evidence that his drive for free admission has enthused school pupils and college students to attend the nation's great collections.

The figures will also help Mr Smith in his battle with the Treasury to allow him to meet Labour's pledge to bring in free admission for all adults in 2001.

Some 21 museums and galleries, including the National Maritime Museum and the Science Museum, scrapped child charges last Easter after the Government pledged new cash to reimburse them. The free entry scheme will be extended to 10 million pensioners next April and pounds 30m has been set aside to roll out the programme to all adults by April 2001.

However, many museums are still reluctant to scrap all entry charges because it would lose them a valuable VAT rebate on their capital projects. Under current rules, museums that have some form of charging are allowed to claim back VAT, worth millions of pounds for those, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, that are planning major extensions.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is locked in discussions with the Treasury about the restriction and will use the latest child admission figures to back its case.

Following last April's changes, 32 of the country's greatest collections now offer free access to nearly 13 million children all over the country. Some, like the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, were already free but 21 others joined them after strong pressure from Mr Smith and campaigns for free admission such as that waged by The Independent. Among them are the Imperial War Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms, HMS Belfast, the National Maritime Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Theatre Museum and Apsley House.

The latest figures show that the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester recorded a rise in child admissions of 28 per cent year on year, with some months showing a 71 per cent rise. The National Maritime Museum had a year-on-year rise of 37 per cent, while the National Science Museum went up by more than 40 per cent.

Some of the rises are as a result of increased school visits, but most are due to individual pupils and sixth form students going to museums and galleries to help with their projects or homework.

"These are extremely encouraging figures and bear out the Government's view that children will benefit immensely. They show that if you scrap charges, the public will respond," one minister said.

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