Britain prides itself on its free museums, but they’re too idealistic – and besides, they hark back to the days when art was deemed second-rate culture
It may be time for museums in Britain to begin charging for entry. I do not say this lightly. The British – and it is distinctively British, with few equivalents elsewhere – belief that all museums should be free is a remarkable piece of idealism. It means that any of us can walk into our local gallery whenever we like and look at a Turner or even a Leonardo for nothing.
Sometimes you have to think the unthinkable. If we want museums to prosper and thrive in a harsh economic climate with central government talking about 40% cuts, an entrance fee may be the best way forward.
And it may have a good side.
The news that many councils are thinking about charging for the museums they run may seem like shocking news. In reality it is much less shocking than some of the other solutions councils have come up with to fund shortfalls. I am not upset by this proposal. No – what upset me was Northampton Council selling its statue of Sekhemka, a 4,000-year-old ancient Egyptian masterpiece it was lucky enough to own. This week the council said it would gladly sell it again. It ought to be ashamed. Selling this statue – for £16m – was a betrayal of every Northamptonshire child’s education, as well as an insult to the intelligence of everyone who lives there.
So wait. What if, instead of selling off great works of art, councils charged for admission? What harm would that do to education and public access? None. People would pay the entrance. School trips would go on, as they do now.
To be clear, charging must never replace public funding: it should be a supplement to it, and in no way is an excuse for cuts. Smaller museums around the country may always have to remain free because they simply don’t have the numbers to make entrance fees useful. But as I say this is about enhancing public funding and not replacing it – France both charges for museums and proudly gives them public money.
At the Louvre everyone queues, and pays, and in the week it is full of school trips just like the British museum. Where’s the problem? The National Theatre is not free. Why should art be? Museums are not the NHS.
Locally and nationally, charging entry can be a rational aid to museum funding. It’s one of those areas where benevolent “correct” attitudes contradict themselves. At the National Gallery, industrial action is dragging on. Low pay is one of the issues there, as Polly Toynbee has pointed out. But more money means more to pay staff, right? So maybe an entrance fee could help in getting justice for all museum workers.
It might also make our exhibition culture a bit more relaxed. Because Britain’s big London galleries as well as regional museums are mostly free, they have to generate income from exhibitions – for which they charge plenty. This drives the “blockbuster” obsession that many people are unhappy about. It means shows on Rembrandt or Pompeii have to be crowd-pullers and money-spinners with huge publicity machines.
How does it work elsewhere? Well, if you pay to go into a museum, you can generally see its exhibitions for free. At the Met in New York for instance, there’s always a choice of serious temporary exhibitions but they are part of the package of entry so the whole experience is more relaxed. Being able to come and go as you please, without the pressure of a timed ticket, is more conducive to a good art experience.
Beyond that, I simply do not observe much difference between free museums and charging ones. Our galleries are full. The ticketed ones in Paris are, too.
A charge for entry might actually make people value the museum more. After queuing and paying to get in a French or Spanish museum you feel a certain thrill on finally entering its galleries. Perhaps our culture of free entrance makes museums seem more ordinary and detracts from their wonder.
Here is the most unsayable truth of all. We pride ourselves on free museum entry because it apparently reflects a democratic belief in art for all. But is that really the reason Britain developed a tradition of free entrance? If you look at the cultural history of Britain it is clear that until very recently we did not care much about visual art compared with, say, France or the US. Right up to the 1980s Britain was a country that preferred theatre, literature and football to visual art. The fact that our museums were free actually reflects this old British attitude that art is not really worth much, that it’s a second-rate cultural attainment.
In the last century our museums were free – and they were dowdy. Today they are great cultural centres – and they must stay that way. In tough times, is it better for museums to sell off their treasures, to cut back staff, to shrink and dwindle – or to charge an entrance fee?
This article was written by Jonathan Jones, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd July 2015 13.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010