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LETTERS: Charges do not deter museum visitors

Sir: I wish Charles Saumaraz Smith well in taking the National Portrait Gallery's bid to the Heritage Lottery Find for its new extension (report, 25 June), but I cannot let his comments on visitor numbers to museums go unchallenged.

Charles Saumaraz Smith claims that those museums that charge for admission have suffered large decreases in visitor numbers since doing so, and cites an alleged drop in the number visiting the Natural History Museum from 3.35 million per year before charging to 1.06 million now: a fall of 68 per cent. As far as the Natural History Museum is concerned, these figures are not "public knowledge" as he claims, but part of public mythology.

In the years before the Natural History Museum introduced admission charges, it simply did not count visitors accurately as they came into the Museum. Annual visitor numbers were estimated subjectively, usually by extrapolating from a few periods of peak visitorship, and were as a result, greatly inflated. An annual visitor count of 3.35 million would have meant an average of over 9,000 visitors every day of the year that the Museum was open. We know from the accurate counts we make of visitors as we issue them with tickets that when 9,000 people visit us in a day, the Museum is packed, with barely room to move. It is clear that it would have been physically and operationally impossible for the Museum to have received 3.35 million visitors a year in the past, or anything remotely approaching this number.

The figure of 1.06 million that Charles Saumaraz Smith cites as the current figure is quite simply wrong. The true figure for last year was 1.46 million of which 1.06 million paid admission charges, the remainder coming in without charge, either during the free period at the end of each day, or in organised school parties.

Since the Natural History Museum introduced admission charges in 1987, its annual visitor numbers have fluctuated year by year from 1.4 million to 1.75 million, and I suspect this is very much the level of visitor numbers during the decade before charging.


Director, Natural History Museum

London SW7