Letter: Museum charges

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Sir: As the debate on free entry to the national collections rightly continues, we must not forget the similar dilemma facing museums and galleries up and down the country.

Regional museums and galleries are the backbone of our cultural heritage, a source of regional identity, a reflection of British contemporary creativity and increasingly at the heart of inner-city regeneration programmes. For the majority of museums and gallery visitors, who represent a greater proportion of the population than those who go to football matches, their first encounter with this heritage is their local art gallery or museum. They are an educational and cultural resource comparable to public libraries, stimulating inquiry and creativity. Children visiting with schools return with their parents. The ability to "drop in" sets a pattern for lifelong learning and enjoyment.

The figures speak for themselves: at the Russell-Cotes Gallery in Bournemouth the removal of charges in April 1995 led to a jump in attendances of 30 per cent, whilst at Ipswich Museum charges were abandoned following the 61 per cent drop in visitors. A government dedicated to education, lifelong learning and the eradication of social exclusion needs to protect the return on the investment made by its citizens, who contribute not only through local taxes but also donations, voluntary support, sponsorship and increasingly, at one remove, through playing the lottery. The benefit of a national grid for learning, for example, will be limited if first- hand access to its key sources is inhibited by short-term policy decisions.

HILARY GRESTY, Director, Visual Arts and Galleries Association; STEPHEN FOSTER, Director, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton University; PETER JENKINSON, Director, New Art Gallery, Walsall; STEPHEN SNODDY, Southampton City Art Gallery; LOUISE KARLSEN, Head of Galleries and Museums, Oldham; SUSAN FERLEGER BRADES, Director, Hayward Gallery; MIKE SIXSMITH, Touring Exhibitions Group; MICHAEL HARRISON, Director, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge University; PENNY THOMPSON, Curator, Rochdale Art Gallery; ELIZABETH ANN MacGREGOR, Director, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; VIRGINIA TANDY, Director, Cornerhouse, Manchester; LES BUCKINGHAM, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth; NICK DODD, Head of Arts and Museums, Wolverhampton; SUE GRAYSON FORD, Director, Cardiff Bay Arts Trust; MARGARET RYLATT, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum