Don't end one of our few great Enlightenment legacies

Andrew Marr On Museum charges

Related Topics
The Conservative Party was shocked. It understood that it lost the election. These things happen, even to great parties. But why was it so hated by so many otherwise mild, reasonable people? Well, one reason was that the Tories came to seem mean in spirit, custodians of a grim, Treasury-dominated world in which everything had a price and nothing seemed to have value outside the ledger book. This is not a mean-spirited country, however. So we elected a new government.

And now, is it all happening again? One of the things the Treasury never quite managed to achieve under the Tories was to put price-barriers up around the very best of our art galleries and museums. One of the glories of Britain has been the freely available great art collections, from Glasgow and Plymouth to Sheffield and Belfast. The best of the best are in London, where from chunks of the Parthenon in the British Museum, through the mainstream Western painting collections of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, to the modern and British art of the Tate, the people have had free access to one of the great accumulations of world art.

This heritage is not a remnant of the post-war state. It dates from the founding of the British Museum in 1759. For more than 200 years, national politicians and municipal authorities have recognised that free admission is good for culture, education and the general mental well-being of the country. It is, to use a hopeless old-fashioned term, elevating.

Now, with the arrival of a shiny new Labour government, one which revels in the rubbed-off glamour of rock stars and fashion designers, and which has boldly used the word ``Culture'' in renaming the Department of National Heritage, there seems a real possibility that it could all be brought to an end.

The rumour was started a couple of weeks ago when the undeniably cultured arts minister, Mark Fisher, made a speech to the Museums and Galleries Commission in which he failed to mention free admission at all - even though it had been a pretty constant theme of Labour in opposition. It is now clear that the Treasury is giving Mr Fisher's boss, Chris Smith, a very torrid time over the issue.

The Culture Secretary wants to protect free admissions and to begin to turn the tide so as to open up some of the charging museums, like the Natural History Museum and the V&A. But with their budgets cut in real terms and little support from the Treasury, the free national museums are already under terrible pressure to charge.

The most immediate problem is at the British Museum, where the move away of the British Library and recent grant cuts have pushed the trustees close to the brink of accepting charges. They meet on December 6 and have a real dilemma about how the Museum is going to get through the next financial year.

The consensus in Museum-land is that if the BM topples, many other museums and galleries throughout Britain will give up the struggle and begin to charge admission too. This may be the hype of campaigners, but there are plenty of people in Whitehall and at Westminster who agree. A tradition rooted in the Enlightenment and secured by the Victorians could then gutter and disappear under Blair. The Treasury couldn't give a hoot. But many people will. What happens over the next fortnight will affect Labour's reputation for a long time to come.

But isn't the Treasury right, you may ask. Why should the rest of us subsidise those who wish to wander and loll in front of old paintings or sculpture? Isn't this just like the Opera: old, elitist culture which should struggle in the market for its quids like everything else? And why should British taxpayers whose idea of fine art is an Athena print pay for the aesthetic pleasure of cultural tourists from Kyoto, Hamburg or Chicago?

People who criticise the idea of free galleries and museums mostly don't use them, or understand how they are best used. Yes, tourists might fork out a fiver a head to see the National Gallery once. Yes, there are some better-off art addicts who would pay time and time again, becoming ``friends'' of favourite galleries, buying season tickets or whatever.

But for those of us who love these galleries, and people who are learning to love them, the whole point is to be able to pop in. An hour or two leaves you with aching feet and a numb mind. You need to be able to U- turn off the street, or squeeze a stolen quarter of an hour, to look at a particular painting or exhibit. Charging would stop most people even thinking of doing so. Unsurprisingly, galleries that do charge have found fewer people making short visits.

In the end, the argument reduces to whether great art is valuable - not for national hoarding but for popular experiencing. How much good does that do? From the standpoint of the state, how do you measure that indescribable whoosh of pleasure in the mind of milling citizens who experience at first hand the emotional and intellectual power of a Stanley Spencer or a Titian? What's it worth on the balance sheet?

Answer: nothing. Art critics and philosophers have, from time to time, tried to demonstrate that a love of form and colour, of drawing and harmony, leads to better citizenship, moral intelligence and good living. None has succeeded. None ever will.

And it doesn't matter a damn. Pleasure doesn't need an external measure of value. The great collections are there because, generation after generation, people liked and valued them. Lots of people from different backgrounds found they made life more tolerable. They soothed, excited, provoked, reassured.

Retaining them as great stone-clad machines to make us happier is part of our national luck. For any democrat, it is a luck that should be shared as widely as possible. Putting barriers at the doors of the National or the Tate will - whatever the politicians say - shut out people whose lives would otherwise be enriched by what is behind them.

Above all, these galleries and museums and their contents belong to us, not them. They are not the property of trustees, or the Treasury, or any passing political administration. Unlike any private theatre, or cinema, they are ours. Discouraging us from entering them would be like charging people to walk through Trafalgar Square, or Cambridge, or Edinburgh New Town.

One of the central philosophical failings of the Conservative years was a failure to understand properly the value of the public, as against the private. The public space, collection, building or service provides a place where we can all stand equally together, at least for a while. Whatever their own tastes, earlier generations of Labour politicians understood the point instinctively. I hope that this one does too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £30,000+

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...

Recruitment Genius: IT Project Coordinator / Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos  

Greece debt crisis: Trouble is, if you help the Greeks, everyone will want the same favours

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy