Museums fall out in crisis over charging

The united front by national museums over free admissions has been broken. The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum tells our arts news editor, David Lister, that he will not tolerate financial help being given to some museums and not others.

In a strong challenge to the Government, Alan Borg said yesterday that if the Government found money for the British Museum to stop it charging, the V&A's trustees would consider scrapping their charges and demand a similar "hand-out." Until now the campaign to maintain free admissions among the national museums and galleries that do not charge - the British Museum, Tate, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery - has been united.

But the intervention of Dr Borg, the V&A director, shows the resentment that has been building up among national museums and galleries which have felt obliged to impose admission charges in the face of declining grants. Whitehall sources have hinted that though the Government might next loosen its commitment to free admission to all national museums, it is considering an eleventh-hour increase in the grant for the British Museum to prevent it charging for the first time in its 230-year history.

Dr Borg said: "If the British Museum does receive a special sum to prevent it charging, there would be an immediate challenge from charging museums. The temptation for our trustees will be to say `thank you very much, we'll take off our charges now.' That's an argument that will be had if the British Museum gets a hand-out. The Government could well see the British Museum as the last bastion which must be safeguarded. But if the do something for the British Museum they have to do something for the rest of us."

This was attacked last night by Charles Samaurez-Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery: "Everyone in the museum community as a whole must support the British Museum", he said, in achieving an end to its financial problems and safeguarding free admission.

Dr Borg said: "... The Government appears to have shifted from `let's keep museums free' to `let's keep museums that are still free, free.' That is unfair, and a distortion. We would all like to be free, but those of us who made the decision to charge early on to stop standards deteriorating should not be penalised. Charging was the lesser of two evils."

He also condemned as "rubbish" the argument by directors, including Neil MacGregor, the National Gallery head, that people are more likely to drop in to museums and galleries regularly when admission if free.

Dr Borg said: "The argument that you could no longer drop in for a few minutes is rubbish. The V&A has an annual season ticket for pounds 15, and entry is free after 4.30 in the afternoon every day."

A different aspect to the debate is raised today by Sir Denis Mahon, who recently bequeathed a number of masterpieces to the National Gallery and other institutions on condition they do not bring in admission charges.

He has said he will withdraw his pictures if the institutions charge. In a letter to The Independent, he says: " ... I am all in favour of genuine partnership between the private sector and the state for the benefit of the public. But if ... the state falls short of its evident duty I shall feel most sadly driven to reconsider my own possible involvement."

Letters, page20

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