Five million take advantage of free entry at museums, but some institutions still suffer

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The Independent Online

A day out at the Natural History Museum or the National Museums Liverpool used to be an expensive affair - until 2001 when the entry fees were scrapped in an egalitarian Government drive for free admissions.

Since scrapping entrance fees, the national galleries and museums that used to charge have attracted 5 million extra visitors. There were celebrations yesterday at the 67 per cent increase in numbers through the doors of institutions from the Science Museum in Manchester to the National Maritime Museum, London, since they axed their admission fees.

But of all the national museums and galleries in England - those regarded as so significant they receive funding direct from Government - seven which had never charged have experienced a fall in visitors during the last four years. Overall attendance has risen by only two per cent since 2001 at the museums and galleries that were always free.

The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford has experienced the worst decline, by 30 per cent to 621,352 people last year from more than 888,000 in 2000-2001.

But even the venerable British Museum and National Gallery in London, appear to have both suffered a fall in visitors due to intensified competition.

Britain's cultural attractions are typically vulnerable to slumps in foreign visitors and can be hit by world events. There was an 11 per cent fall in visitors after the 7 July bombings in London last year. David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund charity, said figures such as a 6 per cent decline at the British Museum and a 14 per cent fall at the National Gallery since 2001 needed further analysis.

"It's worth keeping a very close eye on what is going on and trying to interpret it," he said. "The competition for leisure time is becoming more intense and my suspicion is that were it not for free admission, we would be looking at a significant drop across the board. But we've always said that free admission by itself was not enough. What we really need is adequate consistent funding for all these institutions so they can not only keep their doors open but offer the public the service they're capable of."

Funding cuts to a museum more often than not leads to cuts in the numbers of curators, as evidenced by the British Museum in recent years.

David Lammy, the Culture Minister, said many museums had gone through "a tough period" after 7 July.

"But it's testament to their enduring appeal and the quality of experience that they offer that visitor numbers are starting to pick up again," he said. "What is clear from these figures overall, however, is that our decision to invest in free admission has been a huge success. It is a cornerstone of this Government's cultural policy and we can be proud of its continuing success."

Winners and losers

+129 per cent - National Museums, Liverpool

The eight museums and galleries in Liverpool are the only national museums group based entirely outside London and include acclaimed collections such as the Walker Art Gallery and the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

+94 per cent - Victoria & Albert Museum

Billed as the world's greatest collection of art and design across everything from ceramics to jewellery and textiles.

+83 per cent - Natural History Museum

Collections in the Natural History Museum - a leader in the scientific study of the natural world - now boast free admission.

-30 per cent - National Museum of Photography, Film & TV

Founded in 1983, the museum, situated in the centre of Bradford is home to more than 3 million items, including the world's first negative and what is regarded as the world's first television footage.

-14 per cent - National Gallery

Founded in the early 19th century and home to some of the greatest collections of European paintings, admission is free and for the benefit of all.

-12 per cent - Geffrye Museum

This east London museum shows the style of English middle-class living rooms decorated with furniture, textiles and arts from 1600 to the present day.