Museums and galleries celebrate huge audience increase after 10 years of free entry

By Ben Miller | 01 December 2011
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A photo of the facade of a magnificent museum in front of a garden at night
The Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, is one of the success stories of the free admission policy
© V&A images
Ten years ago today, in what is widely regarded to have been the best (or at least most lasting) decision of his tenure, then-Culture Secretary Chris Smith's attempts to make a raft of major museums free for the public became a reality.

Specifically, the institutions concerned were sponsored by his department, receiving Grant-in-Aid funding from the government, as 21 museums and galleries currently do.

The anniversary has largely intensified an ongoing debate, ranging from arguments suggesting that free entry has failed to encourage those least well-positioned to pay to the thorny issue of a potentially widening gap between publically-funded venues and their increasingly stretched regional allies.

But the official figures undoubtedly remain a cause for congratulation – punter numbers have swelled across the board at museums which once levied a peep inside, from the Imperial War Museum (where numbers are up by almost 350,000 on ten years ago) to the Royal Armouries, where a footfall increase of more than 50% has been witnessed.

Two of the biggest success stories are outside of London, where National Museums Liverpool has recorded a staggering 269% increase – almost two million visitors – and the Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester, has more than doubled its audience.

The department also says that national chambers which have never charged a bean, such as the National Gallery and Tate, have seen a significant rise of 22%.

"We have the finest museums and galleries in the world, but unlike other major capital cities, they are free to visit in this country," said Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has resisted the temptation to vanquish the scheme amid hefty economic cuts.

"Our free museums and galleries ensure that culture is for everyone, not just the lucky few. I am particularly proud that we have secured the future of free museums despite the current financial climate."

Hunt pointed to flagship fee-paying museums across the world, such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art, and highlighted VisitBritain research indicating an annual tourist revenue of £1 billion from the attractions inside.

"The principle of maintaining free admission doesn't come cheap, and to retain the policy in the tough spending review, I had to ask our national museums and galleries, and the bodies who support them, to make difficult decisions.

"They have risen to the challenge admirably, making considerable savings in the backroom to maintain an internationally renowned service on the front line. Our free museums and galleries ensure that culture is for everyone, not just the lucky few."

Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota also applauded the inclusivity of the continuing concept.

"The government is to be congratulated on maintaining this principle at a time of constraint," he suggested.

"Across the world, the success of free admission to national museums is regarded as a model in making available the treasures we all own to the widest possible audience."

  • Use the hashtag #freemuseums10 to join in the debate on Twitter. Head to the DCMS Facebook page for a picture quiz on free museums.
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