The increase in visitors threatens the argument advanced by arts campaigners, the Labour Party and several major museums that charging frightens people away.
Only last week, Tony Blair, the Labour Party leader, expressed his concern about the V & A charging. Key figures in the museums world, including the directors of the British Museum and National Gallery, have repeatedly spoken out against charging, and warned that attendances would inevitably decline.
The V & A attendance figures have not been publicised by the museum authorities. But insiders are struck that there has been no decline in attendances, and the public has not shared the hostility of the professionals to charging.
The V & A's success may now bring further pressure on the British Museum to introduce admission charges. After much public debate last year, the museum's trustees ruled against charging for the time being. The directors and trustees of the National and Tate Galleries have ruled out charging, but the Science, Natural History and Imperial War Museums all now charge for admission to supplement their government grant.
In his first speech on the arts, Mr Blair joined the clamour against the V & A charging admission, saying: "We are concerned about the introduction of admissions charges in national museums. The evidence suggests that high charges can lead to a big decline in attendance."
The figures, however, show that since charges were introduced at the beginning of October last year, weekly visitor numbers have either remained steady or gone up. For most of September, while voluntary charges were in force, weekly attendances hovered around the 18,000 mark. In November, they never fell below 20,000. In the last week of the Christmas holidays they were 25,000, one of the highest of the year. The total for 1996 was 1.27 million, compared with 1.22 million for 1995.
Key comparisons show that the total number of attendances for January 1996 (with voluntary charges) were 82,974. Last month, with compulsory pounds 5 charges, the figures rose to 85,653. With the initial publicity over admission charges, the figures for October 1996 were 27,000 down on the same month for 1995, but they immediately bounced back in November with a 3,000 jump on the 1995 figure.
The rise in figures is not even distorted by the museum hosting any blockbusters or major temporary exhibitions. The main exhibition of last year, the William Morris exhibition, ended in September.
In addition, the museum's own private research among visitors shows that only a tiny minority shared the campaigners' worries on charging. Less than 5 per cent of visitors complained about having to pay for entry, while large numbers voiced concern about non financial matters such as how big the typeface was on labels or how clean the lavatories were.
Looking back over the years, admission to the V & A was at its highest when it was completely free with 1.6 million in 1984, the year before voluntary donations were introduced; it fell to 900,000 in 1990, rose to 1.4 million in 1994 and was 1.27 million last year. Even the 1.6 million high in 1994 cannot be taken as a wholly accurate figure as attendance figures were only estimated before the introduction of charging.
The V & A introduced a compulsory admission charge of pounds 5 last October with a concessionary rate of pounds 3 and annual season tickets for pounds 15. They balanced this with a number of exempt groups to counter the argument that poorer and younger people would be put off by having to pay. Everyone under 18 is allowed in free as are pre-booked education groups, disabled people and their carers and UB40 holders. There is universal free entrance between 4.30 and 6pm every afternoon.
When the decision was announced, the museum came in for much criticism. Julian Spalding, director of Glasgow Museums, called it "a diminution of a great tradition".Reuse content