Visitors flock to museums after admission charges are dropped

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The Independent Online

Visitors poured into museums across Britain yesterday after admission charges were lifted by the Government.

The introduction of free entry was hailed as a "red letter day for our cultural heritage" by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, as she launched the scheme with Chris Smith MP at the Science Museum's new Alfa Romeo exhibition.

Antony Fenwick, the Science Museum's senior visitor services manager, said a large number of people had visited the attraction in South Kensington, London.

The nearby Natural History Museum said about 10,000 people had passed through its doors, a figure comparable to the crowds which flocked to see its Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibition earlier this year. A spokeswoman for the museum, which features a dinosaur gallery and earthquake simulator, added: "It's been very busy and we're very pleased with the attendance."

Other museums in the capital scrapping their admission fee were the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Museum of London and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

A spokesman for the National Maritime Museum said visitor numbers by early afternoon were double those of last Sunday. Michael Barrett said: "There is a very good feeling about the place." A spokesman for the Museum of London said visitor figures were up around fivefold compared to previous Sundays.

Other museums introducing free entry were the Royal Armouries at Leeds and Fort Nelson, Portsmouth; the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester; the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside; and the National Railway Museum in York.

The manager of the Museum of Science and Industry, Martin Leech, said visitors had been pouring in since Saturday. He said: "We were definitely significantly busier this weekend than is normal at this time of year. The phones have hardly stopped ringing with people asking if we have gone free.

"We are very hopeful that our visitor figures are going to be much higher now, particularly in the New Year."

The move is the last stage in the Government's plans to introduce free admission to the nation's museums. Museums and galleries sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will receive an extra £10m to cover the shortfall in income.

Many of the museums on the list began offering free admission to children in April 1999 and to the over-60s in April last year. As a result, the number of children visiting the museums has risen by nearly 20 per cent and the number of over-60s is up by more than 40 per cent.

Visitor numbers to the Natural History Museum are up 8 per cent on last year despite a drop in tourism.