The history of museum entrance fees is long and tangled. Many of the large national museums were built by Victorians, and were usually free to enter. Smaller local museums were supported by local taxes, and had a flat entrance fee of one penny – they were supposed to be accessible.
So today we celebrate 2001 when, following four years of wrangling over VAT, Labour managed to make good on a manifesto promise (yes, apparently this does happen occasionally), and re-introduced free entry to “flagship institutions”.
Visitor numbers shot up in the following years, but it hasn’t been a wholly uncontroversial decision. Smaller museums and galleries complain that, by not receiving government subsidies, they’re being penalised. And the list of subsidised institutions is heavily London-centric.
It may not be perfect, but I say we celebrate – the principle that museums and galleries belong to the nation, and that everyone should be able to access them – is worth fighting for. The argument appears to have been won (for now), with Jeremy Hunt saying he has “secured the future of free museums”
The last few times I’ve visited a museum or gallery, it’s certainly helped that it’s been free. I found myself at a loose end in London last month, walking past the National Portrait Gallery, and realised I’d never been inside. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but thought I might as well pop in – I ended up spending over an hour inside, and will return. Something that would never have happened had I been faced with a hefty entrance fee.
How about you? Would you spend money on visiting museums and galleries, or do you enjoy the fact they are free? Do you think smaller regional venues should get more support?