The museum has begun charging the public for entrance to exhibitions. In national museums and galleries this is done only when exhibitions include loans from other institutions - such as the Jackson Pollock show at the Tate or the Ingres exhibition at the National Gallery.
Free museums do not normally charge for exhibitions that have been put together by bringing objects up from basement stores or moving them from other rooms in the building, as that would simply be charging visitors to see the museum's own collection. But this is precisely what the British Museum is now doing, making a mockery of the lengthy campaign last year to keep the national museums and galleries free - and the recent announcement by Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, that the Government was committed to this.
A spot check by The Independent at the museum yesterday found that compulsory charges were being made for five exhibitions. The public had to pay pounds 1 for adults and 50p for children. The charge for children is particularly sensitive. Mr Smith has told Parliament all children will be able to see the permanent collections of national museums free of charge by next month.
A Department of Culture spokesman said yesterday it was permissible to charge for small temporary exhibitions provided they "reinterpret parts of the collection".
But the Earl of Clancarty, who campaigned in the House of Lords for free admission reacted angrily. "This is simply not on. It is introducing charges by the back door. This must have been decided at a meeting of the trustees, yet it has not been made public. There is a question of public accountability," he said.
"All of the exhibitions in the prints and drawings section are drawn from the permanent collection, yet they call them temporary exhibitions. They may be beautifully mounted, but it is the job of our national collections to do that. Are they going to stop doing this on 1 April when all the national museums are supposed to be free for all schoolchildren?"
One of the exhibitions called "Fascination of Nature" features a 14th- century Chinese scroll-painting acquired with the help of a pounds 198,000 gift from the National Art Collections Fund. David Barrie, director of the fund, an independent charity, said yesterday: "It is a sign of the pressure that the British Museum must be under, that even after receiving extra government money they feel compelled to introduce charges of this kind. It is disappointing."
In the current newsletter to the museum's Friends organisation the keeper of prints and drawings, Antony Griffiths, says of the fee: "No one wanted this to happen, but the museum had little choice."
A British Museum spokes-man said yesterday: "It is true that these exhibitions are largely drawn from the permanent collections. But the admission costs are very much a nominal charge. It's just a way of covering costs in a difficult financial situation."
free-for-all on entrance charges
British Museum (though now charging for some in-house exhibitions)
National Portrait Gallery
National Army Museum
Science Museum: pounds 6.50 (pounds 3.50 children)
Natural History Museum: pounds 6 (pounds 3 children)
Victoria and Albert Museum: pounds 5 (children free)
Imperial War Museum: pounds 5 (pounds 2.50 children)
National Maritime Museum: pounds 5 (pounds 2.50 children)
National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside :pounds 3 (pounds 1.50 children)