Fresh ideas and free entry have revived our museums

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The Independent Online

By doing what almost the entire world of literacy and the arts, including this newspaper, asked for and making museum entry free, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport has ignited a 62 per cent increase in attendance.

Surprise. Governments can do the right thing. And make a difference. By doing what almost the entire world of literacy and the arts, including this newspaper, asked for and making museum entry free, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport has ignited a 62 per cent increase in attendance.

It is now seven months since those museums that did charge gave up the practice under government pressure and subsidy. Not all abandoned the practice willingly. The Victoria and Albert, Natural History, Imperial War and Science museums all claimed that charging was the only reliable means to independent and secure funding. Since many visitors, they suggested, were foreigners from countries who did charge, entry fees were only fair and would hardly dent attendances.

They remain right on one point and wrong on the other. Imposing free entry does not solve the endemic financing problems of museums. We have only to look to the British Museum, which has had to be bailed out with a special rescue package of £15m to help to meet its current funding difficulties. The price of free entry is a heavy one, requiring long-term dependence on increasing sums of public subsidy.

But the gain is there for all to see. A rise in nearly two thirds in visitors represents 2.7 million extra people going through the gates within seven months. So much for the view that the great museums are élitist institutions for a minority. The numbers going to the regional museums increased by 45 per cent. So much for the view that free entry would help only the tourists in London.

Attendance at the Science Museum rose by 82 per cent. So much for their niffing and nawing at free entry. The biggest increases, however, came at the National Museums and Galleries in Merseyside (up 67 per cent) the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (up 66 per cent) and the V&A in London (up an astonishing 157 per cent). Which goes to show that new galleries, fresh investment and reinvigorated curatorship can and do make a difference.

It all amounts to an urgent message for the in-tray of the new director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

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