For almost a decade visitors have been able to enjoy many of Britain's top museums and galleries free of charge. Backpackers could take in the ancient treasures of the British Museum, as well as the cavernous halls of the Tate Modern gallery, without even having to reach for their bumbags. Likewise, rainy Saturday mornings meant, for parents, one thing: a trip to the Science Museum, or the Natural History Museum, or the Imperial War Museum. And with enough money in the bank for lunch afterwards.
All this could change, though, now that the new coalition government have substantially cut funding to these institutions, in some cases up to 30 per cent. Letters were, according to The Sunday Times, sent out last week from the culture department warning them of the grant reductions. Not only that, they were also instructed to reduce their administrative costs by 50 per cent, and given two weeks to come up with a solution. These are yet to be announced but are expected to include plans to reintroduce paid admission.
It comes at a time when visitor numbers are at an all-time high. They have been steadily on the rise since the introduction of free admission in 2001, when the then-labour government allowed museums and galleries to scrap charges without losing their business status (therefore enabling them to continue claiming back VAT on new acquisitions). In December 2006, to mark the fifth anniversary of the new no-charge system, the government gleefully announced an 83 per cent rise in the number of visits to museums and galleries that formerly charged. Furthermore, late last year visitor numbers to London's National Gallery were shown to be up a further 19 per cent in the year up to April 2009. And the Victoria & Albert Museum reported a 10 per cent rise in its footfall in a similar period. Museums and galleries were the perfect cheap day out, affordable even when times were tough.
But although the British have come to pride themselves on their open-armed approach to culture by not charging, its attractions stand alone among other world-class institutions. Almost all of the top museums and galleries in New York charge admission, including the Guggenheim Museum ($18) (Dh66), the Frick Collection ($18) and the Museum of Modern Art ($20). The gargantuan Metropolitan Museum of Art has no official fee, but "suggests" a $20 donation upon entry. Elsewhere, the Louvre Museum in Paris charges 9.50; the Prado Mueseum in Madrid, Spain, 6; and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, 6.50. If, therefore, it is merely the low cost of culture in the UK that has been drawing the crowds, other chargeable attractions should have experienced no such rise. Quite the contrary in the case of the US, according to a survey carried out by The Art Newspaper in December 2009, in which 20 American museums were canvased. Of those, two thirds reported a clear increase in the number of visitors. Moma, despite its relatively expensive ticket price, reported the best year in its 80-year history in the year 2008-2009, while the Guggenheim Museum saw, in its 2009 Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective, its best-attended exhibition yet, with 372,000 people.
Similarly, among the British museums and galleries recently reporting increased visitor numbers were several that charge admission: Blenheim Palace, the famous stately home in Oxfordshire and the birth place of Winston Churchill, reported a 43.6 per cent rise to 537,120 visitors in 2009, despite its £18 entrance fee. And visitors to the historic Tower of London on the banks of the River Thames, which charges £17, were up 11 per cent.
Charging, it seems, is not something to be scared of. And yet there is resistance to the idea. "It would be a backward step," said Maurice Davies, the deputy director of the Museums Assocation, to The Sunday Times. "Free museums have become part of the public realm." Plans to scrap evening openings and even to close one day a week (most of the principal museums and galleries in London are open seven days a week, including public holidays), have also been mooted. In this regard British institutions are also alone, since most other world-class museums already do the latter.
The UK's cultural attractions may be about to get a little less accessible, but perhaps the public have had it too good for too long. Who, after all, wouldn't mind sacrificing a cinema ticket or two for a glimpse of JMW Turner's magnificent Fighting Temeraire at the Tate Britain? Apart from those backpackers, that is.