I spent much of the last fortnight spending a small fortune traipsing round half empty museums in Tuscany. From afar I read the increasingly contested debates around the philosophy and affordability of the policy free admission to some museums in the UK.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents never took me to museums and art galleries. They thought they were expensive, stuffy, unwelcoming and ‘not for the likes of us’. If they were around today they’d have a different experience. A generation of museum leaders has made them relevant, intriguing and provocative. Since 2000 the policy of free admissions to National Museums (or those sponsored by the Department of Media Culture and Sport (DCMS)) has removed many of the economic barriers to visiting.
In UK cities some museums funded by local government are free and were long before the Nationals. Some ‘civic museums’ charge. For example flagship city museums in Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Derby are free, those in Norwich and Nottingham charge.
In 15 years the policy of free admission to National museums has had the effect of dramatically increasing the number of visits. Likewise investment in learning and activity programmes in regional museums since 2000 has seen attendances surge. Visits from those on low incomes has (social classes C2DE) has risen, though not as much as those from those on higher incomes. More people are visiting museum than ever before, but it appears that it is middle-class people going again and again.
In his op-ed column on Museums Journal website last week, Alistair Brown noted
…there’s also an important positive case to be made here as well. Our local authority museums are vital parts of the civic sphere.
They support happy, peaceful communities. They educate and entertain. They care for collections that preserve collective memory and information about the local, national and international. And they should be accessible to all, not just a privileged few.
As a director of museum trust which manages three ‘civic’ museums in Derby, the challenges of running a free museum in a time of Austerity is profound. During the period 2014-16 our public sector income (which currently accounts for 87% of turnover) will have dropped by nearly 30%. We are faced with difficult choices – do we reduce services, opening hours or introduce some charges? I passionately believe civic museums like ours should be free. I also have some sympathy with Rachel Cooke’s argument, that a museum might charge those who can pay if they…
…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.
For those concerned about social justice or reducing inequalities, it is worth recalling the original purpose of many civic museums. Their collections often predate most Local Authorities. Many like the core collection of Derby Museum and Art Gallery were founded by early 19th century philosophical societies. Their members wished to expand knowledge beyond their locality and further understand the wonders of the natural world through collections of specimens, archeological material and art.
In the later 19th century, individual philanthropists gifted collections or cash to develop buildings for museums. Like Carnegie libraries, the purpose of these institutions was to expand the knowledge of general public and in particular the poor.
As cities expanded and population increased, the management of these museums was transferred to city corporations and then funded progressively from local taxes or ‘rates’.
However since the late 1970s the burden of taxation has fallen disproportionately towards the poor. A higher proportion of their income in spent in tax than the rich, through council tax or regressive taxes such as VAT. Even if there has been an increase in lower income visitors to museums, they are still outnumbered by their wealthier counterparts. They are, in effect, subsiding the activities of the well-off. Abandoning free admission would further reinforce this.
The public funding of Derby Museums Trust comprises:
- 30% of income comes from Arts Council England, funded through general taxation
- 58% of Derby Museums Trust income comes from Derby City Council
- Around 35% of Derby City Council’s income comes from council tax, the rest from central government grant which is disproportionately lower than councils in the South of England.
- In places like Derby 80% of council tax payers live in houses bands A-C. They represent about 55% of our visitors. The rest live in bigger houses or come from outside the unitary boundary and their local taxes contribute much less or nothing to the museums.
A blanket admission charge would effectively mean local people paying twice for their civic museum. Charging only ‘out of towners’ would bring in little income. Moreover allowing concessions for students, unwaged, those on income support reinforces the inequalities in access to culture. Visitors would have to prove they were poor and this would effectively means-test access to cultural heritage.
The notion that we as a society cannot afford free museums is fallacious and is borne out of choices we make regarding taxation and a desire for the market to define our needs. We should shift the burden of developing our cultural institutions from the poor to the rich.
- More progressive local taxation, eg raising bands of council tax, or even a surcharge for a local culture tax for homes band C downwards.
- More public investment away from London and the South East.
- Better distribution of lottery funds to projects of the interests of the majority of players – less subsidy for Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and more for local arts and heritage
- Concerted campaigns to encourage the rich to give to culture for public benefit, encouraging giving as civic duty and a privilege of wealth – as in the U.S.
Even so, inducements like Tax breaks for giving further reinforce the notion that the rich may deem what is worthy about culture or society. It further undermines the notion of a civic realm to which we equally contribute according to our means.
The ‘free admission’ debate is less about ‘free access’ but more about how we define society. Do we want a public realm which is increasingly privatised or open and democratic, institutions like museums more defined by the market than universal values of shared humanity and equality and a cultural life which emphasises entrepreneurialism over solidarity?