A right of passage for our treasures

Entrance to national museums will soon be free. Caroline Virr and Lawrence Hourahane assess the likely impact
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The Independent Travel

Amodest revolution takes place among Britain's leading museums on 1 December – the existing admission fees for national museums will be abolished. Some of London's top visitor attractions, including the Imperial War Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, National Maritime Museum and the Museum of London will be free to all comers for the first time since charges were introduced in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

With adult admission to the Science Museum alone costing £7.95, touring the capital's collections can be an expensive business. You might expect tourists from Britain and abroad to postpone their visits until December. But Rebecca Stephens, head of marketing for the Imp-erial War Museum, says: "There is no real evidence that people are putting off visits."

Outside the capital, admission fees will be abolished at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester, the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, the Royal Armouries in Leeds and the National Coal Mining Museum for England.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is getting ahead of its rivals by abandoning admission charges even earlier, on 22 November. This is timed to coincide with the opening of the museum's new British galleries. The V&A says that "the museum may experience a small dip in the number of visitors a week or so beforehand". But the current Radical Fashion exhibition, which runs to 6 January, has already recorded promising visitor numbers.

Since children under 17 and senior citizens are already allowed free entry, the decision to abolish admission fees will affect only adults below retirement age. At present, adults can get in free to most national museums after 4.30pm daily, although at weekends the Natural History Museum in London continues charging until 5pm.

Privately run museums that are located close to those abolishing entrance charges have expressed concern over how this recent decision will affect their own visitor numbers. Since there is a finite number of visitors for any given area, the theory goes, people will choose the free museum at the expense of those that make a charge for admission.

The counter argument is that, in a highly competitive tourism environment, free entrance to museums attracts a larger number of visitors to an area, and provides them with more cash to spend.

The issue is being hotly debated in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly introduced free admission to the Principality's eight National Museums and Galleries in April this year – at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

So far the response has been impressive. The millionth visitor of the year passed through the doors of a Welsh museum a week ago. "It's brought a much needed fillip to tourism in Wales, boosting the return to tourist attractions by UK visitors," says the Wales Tourist Board.

The National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff's Civic Centre has attracted 50 per cent more visitors so far this year than it did during the whole of 2000.

The Museum of Welsh Life (formerly the Welsh Folk Museum) at St Fagan's on the outskirts of Cardiff has more than doubled to 520,000. It seems likely that the total of visitors for the whole of 2001 will see a doubling of numbers visiting museums in the principality.

Could Britain's other museums find themselves overstuffed once the free-admission policy begins? The Imperial War Museum thinks not. It is planning for a 10 per cent increase in visitors, though recent events in the US may change these figures.

Science Museum: 020-7942 4000; www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Natural History Museum: 020-7942 5000; www.nhm.ac.uk

Victoria & Albert Museum: 020-7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk

Imperial War Museum: 020-7416 5000; www.iwm.org.uk

National Maritime Museum: 020-8858 4422; www.nmm.ac.uk

Museum of London: 020-7600 3699; www.museum-london.org.uk

National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside: 0151 207 0001 (main switchboard); www.nmgm.org.uk

Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester: Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4FP; 0161 832 2244; www.msim.org.uk

Royal Armouries in Leeds: Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT; 0113 220 1000; www.armouries.org.uk

National Coal Mining Museum for England: Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, New Wakefield, WF4 4RH;

01924 848 806; www.ncm.org.uk

National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff: 029-2039 7951; www.nmgw.ac.uk

Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan's: 029-2057 3500; www.nmgw.ac.uk

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