It's not rocket science: free access to museums works

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The Independent Online

At least one piece of news can be hailed at the start of this year. The rise in the number of museum visitors by an average of 70 per cent since admission charges were dropped is proof, if proof were needed, that, at a time when film-makers, television schedulers and advertisers sometimes appear as if their only ambition is to reach the lowest common denominator, an almost insatiable desire for the best in culture does remain.

At least one piece of news can be hailed at the start of this year. The rise in the number of museum visitors by an average of 70 per cent since admission charges were dropped is proof, if proof were needed, that, at a time when film-makers, television schedulers and advertisers sometimes appear as if their only ambition is to reach the lowest common denominator, an almost insatiable desire for the best in culture does remain.

It is, as they say, hardly rocket science: when museums charge for entry, the number of visitors declines; when entry is free, the number rises (especially, as it happens, for rocket science – the Science Museum has more then doubled its visitor count). The Government deserves great credit for making a priority of this, an important part of how we define ourselves as a nation. From the National Gallery to the smallest, most specialist of museums, yesterday's figures show that the Great British Public laps up high-quality, informative, stretching, enriching and uplifting experiences.

But why stop at museums? The critical factor behind the rise in visitor numbers is, clearly, price. Yet that message seems still to escape the powers that be at other national institutions such as the Royal Opera House. Yes, they make token efforts. The top-price seat for the recent production of Sophie's Choice, a new opera, was reduced from the usual £180 to £50 – and an opera which would normally have struggled to capture an audience ended up being sold out.

But it is simply not good enough to restrict such initiatives to the likes of Sophie's Choice. The Royal Opera House remains, despite its massive taxpayer subsidy on most nights, a bastion of the moneyed classes. The National Theatre is little better. Its range of productions is breathtaking in quality and scale. And yet a decent seat to see Anything Goes, its Cole Porter musical, is £38. Some national theatre, when for most of the country the cost of admission rules out all but the most infrequent of trips.

The specific museum subsidy directed towards admission costs is a success in every respect. The next stage must be to repeat it in the performing arts.

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