Visitor numbers soar at free museums. But at what cost?

Removing the turnstiles may have boosted gallery attendance, but it hasn't made balancing the budgets any easier. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online

If, after absorbing some of the 20th century's most famous works of art, you pay a visit to the loo at Tate Modern, you will have an anonymous benefactor to thank for the paper. The kindly sponsor may remain unknown to the public, but is someone to whom the Tate, and its visitors,are hugely grateful. For one of the consequences of the phenomenal success of the gallery has been a correspondingly enormous effect on running costs.

If, after absorbing some of the 20th century's most famous works of art, you pay a visit to the loo at Tate Modern, you will have an anonymous benefactor to thank for the paper. The kindly sponsor may remain unknown to the public, but is someone to whom the Tate, and its visitors,are hugely grateful. For one of the consequences of the phenomenal success of the gallery has been a correspondingly enormous effect on running costs.

Yesterday, as record attendances were announced for the national galleries where free admission has been guaranteed by the Government for the past three years, the practical effects of encouraging millions to pay a visit were exposed.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, has announced a 75 per cent increase in visitor numbers to those galleries which used to charge but dropped the fees under pressure from the Government in 2001. The news was welcomed across the arts world, but many galleries were privately reminding Ms Jowell that for them, there is no free visitor. They still wear down the carpet and scuff the floorboards. They need the constant attention of attendants, often more so because they might not be acquainted with conventions such as not touching the art. And they use the lavatories.

The figures show that three years after the turnstiles were removed, visitors to galleries that used to charge have soared. There were nearly six million more visits this year than in the year before entry charges were scrapped. In London, visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) are up by 113 per cent over the past three years, the Natural History Museum is up by nearly 96 per cent and the Science Museum by nearly 71 per cent.

Outside London, attendances at the eight national galleries in Liverpool have jumped 94 per cent, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester had a near-55 per cent rise and the National Railway Museum in York has had a 57 per cent increase since 2000-01, when they all still charged.

In all, nearly 35 million people visited the national museums and galleries this year with even the galleries that have always been free, such as Tate Modern, with a 9 per cent rise in the same period. Twenty-four national galleries now guarantee free entry, double that of three years ago.

Ms Jowell said: "It's clear that the charges that used to be levied were an obstacle to hundreds of thousands of people being able to enjoy the treasures in our national museums and galleries. But what these figures show is the degree of appetite for culture that there is among people across the country. And an enormous number of people have gone for the first time. It really has opened doors for people."

David Barrie, of the National Art Collections Fund (the Art Fund) charity, which campaigned for free admission, said he was thrilled. Most of the directors who run the museums and galleries that have benefited from the policy are also largely delighted that their institutions are such a pull. But they are worried, too.

Although Ms Jowell describes free entry for everyone as a "cornerstone of this government's cultural policy", some of the museum directors trying to balance the budgets are asking whether it is sustainable. The danger is that the policy's success in attracting visitors makes the amount of "compensation" paid by the Government inadequate to pay for it. That means the cost of funding free admission eats into the budgets available for mounting exhibitions, buying new treasures and targeting those sections of the population yet to embrace museum-going.

Hugo Swire, the shadow arts minister, said it should be up to museums to decide whether they could afford free entry. "The Government has not adequately compensated museums for either the lost revenue caused by forbidding entrance charges, or the increased costs of coping with the extra visitors," he said.

This appeared to be the view from the Natural History Museum, though it was expressed more cautiously yesterday. "We welcome the additional access that free entry has provided," a spokeswoman said. "Free entry has been hugely successful in attracting a wider and more diverse range of visitors into the museum. But we will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that our grant-in-aid properly compensates us for the considerable costs such a large increase in visitors creates for us."

The Museums, Libraries and Archive Council, (MLA) sounded another cautionary note. Mark Wood, its chairman, said research suggested that visits were still predominantly by social classes A and B, and it was the number of visits that has risen, not the number of visitors; that is, the same people may be simply visiting more often.

Yet, he said, in regional museums that have had extra funding through a programme called Renaissance in the Regions, a much higher percentage of visitors from social groups C2, D and E had been attracted by specially targeted schemes. Ironically, the latest government spending round has failed to provide enough money to fund Renaissance nationwide. And some regional and independent museums have found potential visitors disappointed to discover that not every museum in the country is free.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Armouries in Leeds agreed they wanted people to visit more often. The Royal Armouries' own research showed free admission had attracted a wider cross-section of people from the city than had visited its famed collection of arms and armour. "We're very lucky to have it in this country and everybody should be able to see it," she said. "Free admission has been absolutely fantastic."

Roy Clare, director of the National Maritime Museum, said: "We've had a terrific couple of years. It's great. [But] it's not all down to free admission but also to the museums themselves realising they are much more than places where people come to be passive." It is certainly the case that programmes in most museums look far more adventurous, with talks, films and educational initiatives for children, than non-visitors might expect. At the Maritime Museum, for instance, projects have included Christmas workshops on making festive food and presents as the Stuart kings would have enjoyed them and even new contemporary art commissions such as the just-unveiled sculpture, Continuum, by Conrad Shawcross.

The National Gallery is as keen to credit its educational programmes as blockbuster shows on El Greco and Raphael for an 11 per cent increase on last year. New galleries and imaginative cross-cultural shows such as Encounters, about East-West trading, have helped revitalise the V&A.

Mr Clare said the statistics on visitor numbers did not really do justice to the breadth of the museum's reach. "What I would say about these statistics, which are as incredible as Tessa Jowell says, is that it is only a bit of the story. I wish they also looked at use and not just visitors through the door," he said. If they measured use, for instance, they might include the 25,000 people who use the National Maritime Museum's library for research or the 5.5 million website users, three times more than just 18 months ago.

"On its own, free admission is simply a start and what museums are doing - what I think we're doing - is responding with imaginative programmes that enable people to come in and feel the door is open and it is theirs," he said. "To be free, if sustainable, is fantastic. And we've had a fair outcome in the most recent spending round so we're with it."

Free admission certainly made a difference to most visitors to museums questioned by The Independent yesterday. Caroline Aitken, 45, a lawyer from Kent, was at the Victoria and Albert with her 12-year-old son Robert. "I probably wouldn't come to museums as often if we had to pay. There are four of us and, if we had to pay for all the family, it would be quite an expensive day. I think it being free brings a lot of people to museums who maybe would not visit otherwise." Sara Gannicott, 35, a housewife from Manchester visiting the Natural History Museum, said: "Now the museums are free, they are more accessible. The curriculum doesn't cover half of this and museums bring everything to life. If they changed it back, it would be a mistake. If we had to pay, we wouldn't have come. I remember five years ago paying a fortune."

Suzanna Tokarova, 23, of Earls Court, a nanny from Slovakia, said: "When I moved to London four years ago, you still had to pay to go to museums. During that year, I never went because of the entrance fees. Since museums became free I have been going much more often and I now take the little girl I look after to them once or twice a week. I think it's a good form of education and she finds them interesting. I would go far less if I had to pay. It is important for everyone to have access to museums so it's important they are free. It has made a huge difference to me.''

But Louise Jones, 49, a headteacher from Preston, Lancashire, said she would still come even if charged. "It's an important part of our culture and enriches everything you do in your life. I often pick up ideas for school in museums and galleries."

David Barrie, director of the Art Fund, fought a long and hard fight for free admission and is delighted at its impact. But he admitted he could understand some museum directors' anxieties. "There is a danger that if the Government focuses all its attention on sustaining this successful policy, it will miss the bigger picture, the funding of the best curatorial expertise on offer and the enriching of our world-class collections."

Additional reporting by Elisa Bray and Dana Gloger

ATTRACTIONS THAT DO NOT CHARGE

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, South Kensington, London. Opened 1881.

Admissions in year prior to scrapping of charges in December 2001: 1,657,124.

Admissions this year: 3,245,314.

Increase in visitors over the three years: 95.84 per cent.

Core collections include the Darwin Centre, containing 22 million zoological specimens. Exhibitions next year includeWildlife Photographer of the Year (to April).

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, Lambeth, London. Opened 1920; here since 1936

Admissions in year prior to scrapping of charges in December 2001: 633,498

Admissions this year: 755,790

Increase in visitors over the three years: 19 per cent

Core collections cover 20th and 21st century conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth, including a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust

VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM, South Kensington, London. Opened 1852

Admissions in year prior to scrapping of charges in December 2001: 969,217

Admissions this year: 2,068,630

Increase in visitors over the three years: 113.43 per cent

Core collections cover 3,000 years of art and design.

Special/new exhibitions: 'Black British Style' (until January), on fashion in British black culture

ROYAL ARMOURIES, Leeds. Opened 1996.

Admissions in year prior to scrapping of charges in December 2001: 296,654.

Admissions this year: 379,661.

Increase in visitors over the three years: 27.98 per cent.

Core collections of world-class arms and armour including the armour of Henry VIII. Holds jousts and daily displays of falconry. An offshoot of the Tower of London.

NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, Greenwich, London. Opened 1937.

Admissions in year prior to scrapping of charges in December 2001: 907,337.

Admissions this year: 1,501,674.

Increase in visitors over the three years: 65.5 per cent.

Core collections include about 2.5 million items related to seafaring, astronomy and measuring time. The museum also includes the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

NATIONAL MUSEUMS, Liverpool

Eight galleries and museums including the Walker

Admissions prior to scrapping of charges in 2001: 694,197

Admissions this year: 1,347,727

Increase in visitors over the three years: 94.14 per cent

Core collections: six centuries of fine and decorative art; Wedgwood and Chinese porcelain

New exhibitions: 'The Stuckists Punk Victorian' at the Walker

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