Leading article: Save a museum: engage in a tax dodge

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A fiver to traipse round the dusty dark corridors of the Victoria and Albert Museum? It must be a joke. It is National Museum Week, and across the country, museums are running special events and projects to attract more visitors. Try caressing ancient stones and bone at the Creswell Crags Museum in Nottinghamshire, or hide and seek games for children at the Bangor Museum. The V&A's contribution to this national celebration of the museum, designed to attract us into their portals, turns out to be a compulsory entrance fee. An interesting way of making people feel wanted.

Before we spill the cornflakes or fall off our chairs with self-righteous indignation, we should reflect for a moment on the difficult straits our museums are in. It would be great if all museums were free. The big national museums, in particular, with their unique and amazing collections, should be supported by the taxpayer. After all, these are not just optional afternoon entertainments for bored families, to be balanced against trips to theme parks, swimming pools or toy shops. They are guardians of our national heritage and culture; they educate, and the splendid exhibits they contain should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their income.

The V&A is trying bravely to modernise itself, by proposing to build one of the most striking modernist buildings London will have seen since the Lloyds Building to form its extension. The good Queen, who laid the museum's foundation stone 97 years ago this week, will be turning in her grave. But that is probably all the more reason to applaud Daniel Libeskind's visionary scheme. The truth is that the government doesn't provide enough cash to keep them afloat. The V&A itself will see its funding cut again by about a million pounds next year.

Faced with a quandary like this, what is a good museum to do? It could close its doors to the public for a day a week, as they used to in the early Eighties, lamenting miserably the parlous state of government support. Or they could vamp up their commercial image, as the V&A plans to do, with more popular special exhibitions put on for an extra charge, and combine that with trendy merchandising, an up-market restaurant and a bigger shop. (The V&A has all three, including one of the largest museum shops around.) The cultural purists will seethe, of course. But their opposition isn't the real problem; the drawback is that even these add- on gimmicks of modern museum marketing do not raise the kind of cash museums need to survive.

So inevitably, like the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum before it, the V&A is turning to the turnstiles to bail it out. In the circumstances, it is perhaps remarkable that the museum has held out for so long. Since 1985, the V&A has asked for voluntary donations, currently a recommended pounds 4.50 for adults. Compare this to the compulsory pounds 5.50 (pounds 2.90 for kids) to see dinosaurs or spaceships across the road in Kensington, and the new V&A proposals are not that bad in comparison - about pounds 5 for adults, free for the under 18s, and free for everyone after 4.30 in the afternoon.

So should we just shrug our shoulders and accept the V&A's surrender to market forces as inevitable? Not necessarily. Whichever way you cut it, some people will be excluded by the new charges. The fact that the flora and fauna in the Natural History Museum, and the games and gadgets in the Science Museum are already out of reach of some should not make us any happier, even if we understand the V&A's dilemma.

It may be true that most families who wander the hallowed galleries on a Saturday afternoon could afford to dig a little deeper into their pockets. But some will find it a squeeze. A joint entrance fee of pounds 10 for a couple with a family, who will then want drinks and food and trinkets and mementos, could well be a hurdle for the household with an income of less than pounds 20,000 who want to take their children round a few exhibits for a self-improving afternoon of culture. Plenty of families up in London for the weekend will have to decide - will it be the tyrannosaurus rex or fashion through the ages? They won't be able to afford both.

Even if you are prepared to trade off access for a few against millions of pounds in cash, this level of compulsory charges may not be as sensible as it sounds. Push charges too high and attendance will drop, and you may find yourself taking less income overall. At the moment, voluntary donations to the V&A are worth pounds 1 million a year. The V&A expects compulsory charges to raise more than pounds 2m. When other museums introduced charges, and the V&A donations, 700,000 people were put off. Its attendance fell from 1.7m to 1 million a year. The V&A hopes the same thing will not happen this time, but it can't be sure.

Cash from ticket sales alone does not explain the V&A's decision. VAT does. Introducing compulsory charges is a massive tax dodge. By giving up its charitable status, the museum will be able to claim back up to pounds 2 million in VAT from the Treasury. As Kenneth Clarke contemplates his falling tax revenues and rising government deficit, he should contemplate the capital's museums. But if the taxpayer is going to lose the money anyway, better to simply give it to the museums up front so they can stop charging rather than lose it by the back door.

There is one more reason why the V&A is choosing charges rather than voluntary contributions, and it is probably the worst reason of all. According to the V&A, people feel irritated by having to choose how much to give. What if you only work part time - should you give half as much? Will the attendants look snooty if you only give pounds 1? Many of us, it appears, would prefer to have the price set for us, so we can make a private choice about whether to go to the museum.

But why should we be let off so lightly? There is no easy answer to the delicate question of how we should balance the contributions of taxpayers and visitors, nor how much we each should pay according to our incomes and circumstances. Most of the time, museum management, or Treasury officials, will make these kinds of decisions on our behalf, and let us escape the most difficult dilemmas. There, in the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum - or in any of the other big national treasure troves - we should spend a minute or two agonising ourselves about how much it is fair for us to pay.