Free museums fail to attract wider audience

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The Independent Online

The Government's policy of free entrance to museums has benefited the cultured elite in the south of England, but failed to attract the interest of the wider public, a survey suggested yesterday.

The Government's policy of free entrance to museums has benefited the cultured elite in the south of England, but failed to attract the interest of the wider public, a survey suggested yesterday.

Visits to museums have increased by 63 per cent since the scheme was introduced in December last year but the number of people visiting has increased by only 28 per cent.

According to Mori, the large number of repeat visits is mostly by the educated and cultured classes. The survey found 34 per cent of visitors were from the AB socio-economic group and 15 per cent were from the DE group. About 40 per cent were from the South, 29 per cent from the North and 32 per cent from the Midlands.

Last month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the number of visits to government-supported museums and galleries had risen by 63 per cent, from 4.3 million to 7 million, between December 2001 and June 2002. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, attributed the rise to the "spectacularly successful" abolition of entry fees.

A different picture is painted by the Mori survey for the Museums Association, based on interviews with 2,000 people last month.

Andy Martin, of Mori, said: "A very positive finding was that 45 per cent of the public had now been to a museum, art gallery or exhibition compared with 35 per cent at the same time last year. So free entry has had an impact." But he added: "The profile of people visiting the museums hasn't shifted. So you could conclude that free entry has benefited the traditional museum-going types."

Helen Wilkinson, policy officer for the Museums Association, said the scheme was successful but in a different way from that expected.

She welcomed the increased number of visitors, but admitted: "More needs to be done in order to attract more people to the exhibits. Museums need support to enable them to keep changing their displays."

She added: "It's also a matter of time. Those people who go to museums often went as children and for those who didn't go, it takes a long time to change people's behaviour from the patterns that were set in childhood."

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