Museums close to charging admission as Treasury blocks alternatives

A plan by Chris Smith to levy an extra tax on tourists to fund free entry Britain's national museums has failed. David Lister, Arts News Editor, predicts that leading museums will now urgently consider charging.
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The Independent Online
The Government will announce in the next fortnight that it is no longer committed to the principle of free admission to national museums and galleries.

The Independent has learned that Mr Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has attempted to persuade the Treasury to impose a special tax on tourists arriving in Britain to fund the pounds 40m a year necessary to stop any more national museums and art galleries imposing admission charges. But, according to Whitehall sources, Mr Smith has lost the battle. The Treasury is fearful that any other taxes on visitors could harm the tourist trade.

It is also understood to have refused requests from Mr Smith to make VAT concessions for museums on money made from merchandising.

And so, when the government announces the conclusions of its review of charging early next month, it is almost certain to say that decisions must be left to trustees of individual institutions, and will offer no financial help at all to museums desperate to avoid charging.

The trustees of the British Museum meet on 6 December, two days after publication of the review, and could decide to impose admission charges for the first time in their history. The National Gallery and Tate Gallery are also free and had been hoping for a government commitment to free admission. Instead, the Tate will now have to consider whether to impose charges at its new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside, due to open in 2000.

Under Mr Smith's plan the current tourist tax of pounds 5 for travellers from the EC and pounds 10 for others, introduced by the last government, would rise to pounds 10 and pounds 15 respectively. This would raise pounds 400m extra, and just one tenth of that would have enabled the non-charging museums to continue free admission - though similar sums would be needed in future years.

With that plan turned down by the Treasury, Mr Smith's review will distance itself from a commitment to free admission, stressing instead the attractiveness of cheap season tickets for museums, with free entry being retained for children, pensioners and the unemployed. This is the system introduced this year at the national museums and galleries on Merseyside where a pounds 3 ticket gives entry to all institutions for year.

Key government advisers such as Lord Puttnam, the film producer who sits on the cultural industries committee, are also believed to have changed their minds over the imperative of free admissions - provided children and students are exempted. They argue that people who take advantage of free admission to visit the museums frequently should pay a few pounds a year to support the institutions they love.

The Government will also urge museums and galleries to make more effort in merchandising and opening outlets both in this country and abroad.

Mark Fisher, arts minister, recently stunned a conference of museum chiefs telling them they could "learn lessons from Harvey Nichols, Marks and Spencer and Tesco".