Museums told to go commercial

The Labour Government wants national museums and galleries to take lessons from Harvey Nichols, the Knightsbridge store immortalised in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. David Lister hears the arts minister, Mark Fisher, tell astonished museum directors to become more commercial.

The Government yesterday signalled a U-turn on demanding free admission to national museums. A stunned conference of museum directors heard Mark Fisher, the arts minister, say he now had to consider the success of the National Galleries on Merseyside which has introduced charges with concessions for young people and had an increase in visitor numbers.

He added, to the consternation of his audience, that museums and galleries should make money by "exploiting retail space" and learning lessons "from Harvey Nicholls, Marks and Spencer and Tesco. It is not crass commercialism to say we can do better in these areas," he said to some gasps from the audience.

Mr Fisher was addressing a conference organised by the Museums and Galleries' Commission. He said afterwards that what he had in mind was art galleries and museums opening shops at airports, both in Britain and in places like Dubai and Singapore.

A number of leading museum directors commented privately that his speech sounded like many they had heard from Conservative ministers during the last 18 years, and there was little further scope for maximising marketing and retail opportunities.

Significantly, Mr Fisher's speech was in stark contrast to his statement to the House of Commons in the summer when he spoke out against charging, saying: "We do not want anyone to be charged entry to national museums and galleries ... The Government believes that all members of the community should be able to enjoy our great national museums and galleries: they should be for the many, not just the few."

David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund, said: "Despite its earlier promises, it now looks as if the government has performed a U-turn. Mark Fisher's speech strongly suggests that they have no intention of discouraging the introduction of admission charges"

However, Alan Borg, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which does charge, said: "Every survey shows the majority of museum visitors comes from the ABC1 social category and tourists. To give them free admission amounts to a subsidy for the middle classes and well-off."

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