Free is the magic number

When considering the impact of museum funding cuts, I thought I knew what the threats might be: closures, or part-closures, shorter opening hours, staff redundancies, selling off collections, cutting back on all but the core activities. I didn’t think that something I’ve come to take for granted would be under threat: free entry.

As a teenager in 2001 when free entry to nationals was introduced, I have grown up expecting free access to museums. Now working for a national myself, I enjoy free entry to most temporary exhibitions too, thanks to reciprocal agreements. This is one of the few (financial) perks of the job, since ironically as a low-paid museum worker I couldn’t regularly afford to spend £10 – £18 to see a show. I am also a member of the Museums Association, which opens further museum doors outside the capital. Given the high cost of some museums and exhibitions, the membership soon pays for itself in free and discounted entries, while supporting the work of the MA, so for me it is an easily justifiable expense.

All of this means I am now fairly blinkered to the actual cost of entering museums for the person on the street. But not as blinkered as Jonathan Jones and Rachel Cooke in their recent Guardian articles in favour of reintroducing entry fees. The argument seems to be that if we see culture as worth something, it is worth paying for. This attitude is problematic in many ways. It assumes that people still need cultural capital to value museums, and that all those that have cultural capital also have the financial capital to pay at the point of access.

Those with plenty of disposable income to spend on leisure and culture fail to understand what life can be like for those who don’t. £7.50, as proposed by York Museums, might not seem like much, but if you are on a tight budget and can only spare so much for entertainment, the entrance fee is going to change your behaviour. It will make you think twice about going to the museum if it means you have to choose between that and another activity.

Simon Jenkins’ Evening Standard article on the issue sees money not spent on entry fees staying ‘in the pockets of art lovers, to be spent on concerts, plays, restaurants and hotels.’ (As opposed to gigs, films, pubs…? It’s clear that Jenkins’ image of a museum-goer fits the bill of someone with both cultural and financial capital). Indeed the problem with many of the articles I’ve seen on this issue is that they are written by and presume to speak to the comfortable middle class visitor, who, according to these authors, can and should pay. What to do with those who can’t is glossed over…something about means testing, something about free days, discounts for locals. It’s somebody else’s problem. The Standard article is full of disdain for those who go to national museums because they’re free. Schoolchildren! Teenagers! Foreign teenagers!

One of the issues raised on Twitter and in comments on the above articles is that many people like to dip in to museums, on a lunch break or as part of a broader day out in town. Paying an entry fee will likely make people want to get their money’s worth, only going to museums as a specially planned day out,far less frequent than just popping in.

The other way people will want to get their money’s worth is by having greater influence over what goes on at the museum. We pay for museums from the public purse, recognising that they have a role in caring for our heritage. But when people are asked to pay directly for something they used to get for free, they will expect to get more.

Charging entrance fees will alter the role of museums in communties. The argument that since museums are publicly funded, they need to work to ensure they are catering for all sectors of the community will no longer hold as much weight. This is an area where, despite great strides being made, there is much work to be done. It is not the time to stop now.

Both Guardian articles share the naive assumption that extra funds from entry fees will bring improvements for museum staff, with Jones suggesting that  ‘…more money means more to pay staff, right? So maybe an entrance fee could help in getting justice for all museum workers.’ But it’s not as is museums have enough money now, and any extra will go into the pockets of the staff. Cooke refers to money raised from entrance fees paying for staff to continue community engagement work:

‘I don’t see why those people – people like me – shouldn’t help to subsidise the less well off, to fund not only the concessions that must be maintained for children, pensioners and students, but also –this is so much more important – to pay the salaries of those working hard to bring in new social groups: the curators, the youth workers, the people who run educational programmes.’

This vision of entrance fees paying to keep existing staff on existing salaries is more realistic, but doesn’t address how entrance fees will make the work of bringing in ‘new social groups’ that much harder.

The example of the Louvre is raised time and again. The most popular museum in the world charges an entrance fee. Jones writes ‘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?’ But the last time I went to the Louvre, as an EU citizen under 26 (at the time) I got in for free. Checking whether this is still the case reveals a long list of people entitled to free entry, including all under 18s, and those unemployed or in receipt of benefits. So yes, the Louvre charges admission, but makes provisions for young and disadvantages people to enjoy its culture for free.

Jones argues that ‘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.’ I disagree. When I got my free entry to the Louvre just for producing my passport, I felt privileged and valued – as a young member of the European community I was entitled to visit one of the world’s greatest collections for free. Free entry is a reminder that museum collections belong to the public. Paying more money to see them doesn’t increase their worth. Their value is in the fact they belong to all of us.