Leading Article: Museum charges will always be too high a price to pay

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"If you wish to continue to look at this painting, please insert another compulsory donation token." Can the day be far off when our museums and art galleries are cordoned off from the rest of public space and charges introduced across the board? The Government will make a statement in the next 10 days, and no doubt it will be a carefully-balanced compromise between the "tough choices" imposed by public spending limits and the Labour Party's desire, expressed rather more passionately in opposition than in power, to keep museums and galleries free.

That will be a shame, because this is really an either/or decision. Either this country continues to glory in a series of great national art and cultural collections into which citizens can walk on a whim, in their lunch breaks or in between shopping. Or it slips and slides into a state of affairs in which "culture" is seen as a segmented economic activity, marked off, labelled as elite and paid for. This would be a stifling and posthumous legacy of Thatcherite philistinism, and it would be grimly fitting that one of the engines of such a decline turned out to be the National Lottery. As we report today, the lottery, far from being the bottomless cornucopia paying for a revival of British culture, has turned out to be one of its chief enemies, by so distorting the financing of the larger museums and galleries.

According to the report from the Policy Studies Institute, the lottery has distracted curators from their core functions, including making their collections accessible, by encouraging grand capital projects which will require a source of revenue in future to maintain. This is an important extra pressure for charges to be introduced. In addition, lottery money has been drawn to the biggest and most famous institutions, many in London, thus dragging us further from the ideal of a proud, independent museum and gallery in every big city.

Yes, of course this is an elitist issue. Many cultural institutions already charge. The Science and Natural History Museums in London are not cheap. You have to pay to go to the theatre or listen to a concert. Why are the fine arts and provincial museums different? Well, they are different because as communities - or municipalities as they were called then - we recognised that we all gained from them, even if we personally never understood why a photograph would not be a better likeness, or why we could not read about the Rosetta stone in a book.

And in a way this is a small issue. The sums of money are relatively trivial in relation to the national budget. Education, health, pensioners and lone parents are all in greater need. But unless it is seen, one and a half steps back from the small print of the Treasury Red Book, as a big issue, it will go by default.

Because it is a question of the kind of society modern - even millennial - Britain is. Amid all the brave talk of a young, rebranded country, there are two possible models of the future. In one, we simply embrace entrepreneurs, big business and the dynamism of the private sector and seek to recruit them to social causes. Museums can stay free if they find sponsors to pick up the tab. Or, in the other future, we retain a role for the collectivity of citizens, a sense of civic pride, and a map of civic space. We say that the Victorians were right to aim for an elevated public culture and to mobilise collective resources for it. Indeed, side by side with the growth of Thatcherite free-market dynamism we have seen something of a renaissance in the architecture of public spaces over the Eighties: the question is whether this can be developed and promoted before it is swallowed up by a concept of the public good that is simply the aggregation of the prices that individuals are prepared to pay.

It is a good thing that museums and galleries have become much more commercial and have raised huge sums of money from sponsorship. But the commercial imperative should not carry all before it. We should make some large declarations about our society - that we want to live in the sort of country where really good art and artefacts can be seen without charge. Where public spaces, including streets, shopping centres and train stations, should be safe and pleasant places for all the people.

Compromise is not possible. This newspaper last week pointed out that museum charges would deter people from just popping in if they could steal a quarter-hour to see a particular exhibit or simply be ready to be surprised by what is there. A correspondent suggested that charges could be set like car parks according to the amount of time spent. But that does not meet the objection. Free museums and galleries should be an indivisible part of our public life, and the Government should say so.