If the Government drops its commitment to free admission at national museums and galleries next week, the result could be a decline in museum attendance.
A private survey of visitor numbers at national museums which have already adopted compulsory charges shows that visitor numbers have largely declined. The survey was carried out by two peers, the Earl of Clancarty and Lord Freyberg, and was given to The Independent. All the figures come from the museums' own records and show on average a 33 per cent drop in visitors from the time they imposed charges to now.
The Natural History Museum had 2.5 million visitors in 1986-87 before compulsory charges, 1 6 million in 1988-89 and 1.8 million in 1996-97.
The National Maritime Museum had 798,682 in 1983-84 before charges, 528,000 the next year and 467,794 in 1996-97. The Royal Air Force Museum had 323,000 in 1986-87, introduced charges in 1988 and is down to 135,344 in 1996- 97.
The Science Museum had 3,166,294 visitors in 1987-88, introduced charges in 1988, saw 1,121,103 pass through its doors in 1989-90, and 1,548,366 in 1996-97.
The Victoria and Albert Museum had 1,577,608 in 1984-85, introduced voluntary donations in 1985 and dropped to 1,003,306 in 1986-87, introduced compulsory charges in November 1996 and had 1.2 million visitors, in 1996-97.
The only national institution to have increased visitor numbers after charging is the Imperial War Museum in London.It had 396,000 visitors in 1987, introduced charges in 1989, when figures rose to 412,000, and last year attracted 444,000.
David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund, said last night: "If Chris Smith wants equality of access, then the best way to achieve it is free admission." As revealed in The Independent on Monday, Mr Smith, the Culture Secretary, has failed to persuade the Treasury to increase visitor taxes on tourists to create a special fund for national museums and galleries so that they don't have to impose charges.
The British Museum trustees meet at the end of next week and may decide to charge, for admission for the first time in the museum's history. The Tate Gallery, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are also free, though the Tate may now decide to charge for admission to its new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside which opens in 2000.
The Government's likely abandonment of the principle of free admission flies in the face of earlier commitments. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in February, when he was leader of the Opposition: "We are concerned about the introduction of admission charges in national museums. The evidence suggests that high charges can lead to a big decline in attendance."