Museum charges `inevitable' after lottery-fuelled building spree

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Museum charges are inevitable, according to a report by the Policy Studies Institute. David Lister, Arts News Editor, examines its findings, which blame the National Lottery as well as museum directors obsessed with glamorous rebuilding projects.

Lottery money awarded to museums and galleries may have the unforeseen effect of making admission charges inevitable.

A report to be published today by the Policy Studies Institute, the independent think tank, says the reason is that so much money has been spent on glamorous building projects and so little on essential work such as conservation, documentation and services for the public, including widening access.

Some of the national museums and galleries fighting to remain free have won large lottery sums for redevelopment and rebuilding projects: The British Museum, Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are among these.

According to the latest edition of Cultural Trends from the PSI, 73 per cent of the pounds 294m of lottery money that has been awarded to museums and galleries is being spent on new building projects.

Only 5 per cent of the money was spent on conservation and documentation. One striking contrast is that pounds 215m has gone to new building and a mere pounds 141,000 to research, hitherto one of the main activities for museums.

One museum director told the PSI that the lottery had "promoted greed" among his colleagues. And the PSI report concludes that the big building projects now being undertaken "might not be sustainable in the tong term" because of the increased running costs they will incur. That alone hastens the introduction of charges among the museums that remain free.

In a damning conclusion, the PSI observes: "Applicants may have deliberately sought funding for major building projects, rather than conservation and documentation projects which are less visible and may be less attractive to sponsors or certain partnership funders ... Moreover, there are indications that the lottery may well have distracted museums from these core functions [conservation and documentation]." The report also notes that lottery funding was not distributed evenly across the country. More than 60 per cent of it was spent in London, and more than half went to just a dozen museums and galleries. No awards were made for new buildings, refurbishment or equipment in Northern Ireland, and nothing was spent on new buildings, acquisitions or commissions in the North-east.

The PSI conducted a national survey of museum directors for its information. This also found that, despite the fact that one-fifth of museums are based in Scotland, they represent only 7 per cent of all charging museums. The majority of museums which charge visitors are based in the south of England and in the Midlands. It also found that the Government is making these decisions on ambiguous and contradictory research. The Museums and Galleries Commission says that museum attendance fell by one-third between 1993 and 1995 - a period when, according to the British Tourist Authority, numbers were constant.

The Government will make a statement in the next 10 days about charging. It is likely to distance itself from its commitment to free admission at national museums and galleries following the Culture Secretary Chris Smith's failure to convince the Treasury to give an increase in funds. But it may increase the grant to the British Museum to prevent it from introducing charges in the near future. But that action could provoke a museum war as Dr Alan Borg, head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has said he would not tolerate the British Museum receiving a "handout" and his museum getting nothing.

The Government's likely abandonment of the principle of free admission contradicts earlier commitments. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in February when he was leader of the Opposition: "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." The Arts Minister Mark Fisher told the Commons in June: "We do not want anyone to be charged entry to national museums and galleries."

"Cultural Trends", pounds l7.95, available from Grantham Books 01476 541080.

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