Museums should encourage visitors to step up

Who are these sensitive flowers who find the stairs to the National Gallery intimidating?
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The Independent Online

The singer Mariah Carey, when asked to come down a flight of steps at a photocall, famously snapped back: "I don't do stairs." It seems that she is not alone. According to the director of the National Gallery, whole swathes of the population, particularly the lower socio-economic groups, don't do stairs.

The National Gallery has had a very good year under its new director Charles Saumarez Smith, but I wonder what he could have meant when he stated that the redesign of the building would make it "less intimidating" by allowing people to enter at ground level from Trafalgar Square and not have to climb the steps. "There's a lot of evidence that non-traditional users who are not used to the National Gallery and what it has to offer can find the entrance intimidating," he said.

I would love to see this evidence. Who are these sensitive flowers who find steps intimidating? How, indeed, do they manage to get out of Charing Cross station a few yards from the gallery? Are they similarly intimidated by the imposing entrance to Earl's Court? Justin Timberlake managed to play to a sociologically diverse audience there this week. Few seem to be intimidated by the imposing entrances to Premiership football grounds. None of these impediments - which would cause anguish to a museum director - intimidated fans of diverse classes and ages.

Sport and pop promoters have no worries about steps or imposing entrances; they have no worries about intimidating audiences. It is only in the high arts that those in charge feel obliged to dream up ever more outlandish reasons to amend both their wares and their buildings in the quest for wider access.

It is not entirely their fault, of course. Mr Saumarez Smith's remarks came after some of our best-known museums and art galleries were told by the Government that they must attract more visitors from ethnic minorities and low-income families or face losing their grants. New funding agreements drawn up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to cover the period 2003-4 to 2005-6 show that 18 museums will have to raise their numbers of C2DE visitors by 8 per cent on the previous financial year. They will be required to increase the number of children who visit their exhibitions by a total of seven million over the three-year period. A DCMS spokesman warned that failure to meet the agreements could lead to public funding being cut off.

Such a threat can lead the most doughty of gallery directors to contemplate their entrances. Similar exhortations have already led the V&A to plan an exhibition of fashions of Afro-Caribbean youth culture. Fair enough. It may prove a good idea. But there are other answers to the sloganising of New Labour. One is that, after much campaigning, the national museums and galleries now have free admission, a massive encouragement for people of all classes and incomes; that most, including the National Gallery, have late openings, which again bring in a different audience; that education work has increased with art historians going into the poorer boroughs to give talks.

Once they have delivered the on-message stuff, the museum directors might remind the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, that the purpose of increasing access is to bring more people into the national museums and galleries to appreciate the art that is on offer and, come to that, the buildings in which the art is housed. That is in danger of being forgotten.

Let's hear the heads of our national museums stand up and shout the glories of their permanent exhibitions and declare that people of all classes and incomes would thrill to them. Charles Saumarez Smith can surely convince anyone that his dazzling array of Old Masters are worth climbing a few steps for.

¿ A fascinating photograph came to light this week of J M Barrie dressed up as Captain Hook, 10 years before Peter Pan was first staged, and 11 years before he appeared in a book. The photograph from 1900 shows Barrie in flowing robes, looking rather dashing and handsome, for all the world like a romantic hero. It makes you wonder whether the poor old Captain has been wrongly cast as a pantomime villain for much of the past century. Perhaps his creator meant him to be seen more as a misunderstood dreamer, who just wasn't wild about children.

¿ I'm pleased to see, after more than a year of campaigning for cheaper theatre tickets, that the subject of ticket price is now being taken seriously enough to merit an award. The influential website, which reflects the views of audiences, might be giving its Theatre Event of the Year award to the £10 Travelex season at the National Theatre. The website says: "The National's Travelex £10 season is storming ahead in this category, currently commanding nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Clearly, theatregoing really is a price-sensitive pastime." Clearly, it is. I will even overlook the fact that the award won't be going to me.