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Debate: Should all museums be free to enter?

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Should all museums be free to enter?

Background and context

Museums are expensive to run, with the costs of acquisitions, conservation, maintenance, staff salaries and special exhibitions all weighing heavily upon their budgets. In many cases much of their funding comes from the government, whether at national or local level, with the remainder made up through endowments, income from museum shops and other commercial ventures, private donations and sponsorship, and, very often, through entry fees. About half of Britain’s museums charge for admission but this number should be reduced over the next few years as it is the policy of the Labour government to make entry to museums free.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Museums preserve and display our artistic, social, scientific and political heritage. Everyone should have access to such important cultural resources as part of active citizenship, and because of the educational opportunities they offer to people of every age. If museums are not funded sufficiently by the government, they will be forced to charge for entry, and this will inevitably deter many potential visitors, especially the poor and those whose educational and cultural opportunities have already been limited. Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London declined by 15% after it started charging for admission. Free access is essential to provide freedom of cultural and educational opportunity.

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No

Not everyone wishes to visit museums, which are essentially a form of entertainment for the middle classes and tourists. The majority of adults never visit a museum, preferring instead leisure pursuits such as football, the cinema or clubbing. Why should they have to pay for their chosen entertainment while subsidising the generally wealthier middle class through their taxes? Tourists pay no taxes here and so gain a free ride at the expense of domestic taxpayers. The state provides educational opportunities for all through free schooling, which often includes free museum trips. If free museum entry were considered a cultural right, shouldn’t the state make theatre tickets free as well?

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Argument #2

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Yes

Museums are a crucial source of inspiration and education for our increasingly important creative industries (e.g. art, design, fashion, and architecture). Free access is an investment in the future of this sector of the economy and therefore has long-term benefits in securing prosperity for the whole of society. Similarly, tourism is an important sector of our economy and many visitors will be deterred from visiting our country if they think it will be very expensive to visit its great museums and galleries. Tourists do contribute hugely to government revenues through the indirect taxes they pay and the jobs they generate, so free museum access to support the tourism industry is a sensible investment.

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No

Such potential economic benefits are dubious and rely upon access to collections that are excellent in their content and in the way in which they are conserved and displayed. If museums are to be funded entirely out of public money, the pressure on any government’s budget from the demands of hospitals, schools, pensions, etc. will inevitably mean that museums will come a poor second, resulting in under-funding and poorer museums at the end of the process. This will not help our creative industries or tourism. It is excellence rather than the cost of visiting attractions which attracts tourists in any case.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Museums have a valuable role in preserving and transmitting a nation’s history and heritage to new generations. Free access will encourage more people to find out about their country and help to promote feelings of national unity and identity, while promoting greater understanding and acceptance of foreign cultures.

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No

If museums are entirely funded by the state, they will have little incentive to increase visitor numbers and to make their collections exciting and accessible for all. The need to attract paying customers concentrates the minds of museum and gallery directors upon the needs of the public and produces imaginative and popular exhibitions, as well as adding value through guided tours, lectures and tie-ins with television programmes. All of this ensures that more people, not less visit museums. In addition, if museums were made entirely reliant upon public funding, it is likely that money would be channelled to those institutions the government felt were most important, forcing smaller, local or more specialist museums to close. Nazi Germany also points to the dangers of allowing politicians control over interpretations of national identity and presentations of other cultures.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Television is not an adequate substitute for widely accessible museums. At a museum a visitor can choose what to see and for how long they wish to study it; television is a much more passive medium making the viewer dependent upon the interests and interpretation of the producer - it is likely to present sensationalist and controversial material in a bid for ratings, for example. Nor can a two-dimensional medium compare to viewing an object, even a flat painting, from many different angles, or even handling it, in a museum.

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No

Today television plays a much greater role in transmitting our cultural heritage and a sense of national identity. Usually free to the viewer, it reaches into almost every home, both rich and poor. Most countries recognise television’s power by giving broadcasters a duty to include cultural and educational programming. It is a far more effective way of reaching a mass public than expensively subsidising every museum on the off-chance that people will enthusiastically flock to them. Often, inspirational television programmes will increase the popularity of relevant museum exhibits – for example, Britain’s Natural History museum saw greatly increased attendances after the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs series.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Education is not just in schools, parents also have an important role in broadening their children’s cultural horizons through museum visits, among other forms of creative and intellectual stimulus. Children may have free entry at many museums, but parents are often charged high prices, deterring family visits, especially from the poor and from those families who do not prize education so highly. Again, this is an equal opportunity issue, being one of the reasons why middle-class children outperform their less-privileged peers academically.

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No

Clearly this is a question of balance, as the government cannot afford to fund every activity of possible value, especially given the social and economic costs of increased taxation. It is reasonable for governments to focus their attention upon schools and higher education in an attempt to provide more equality of opportunity. In any case, there are alternatives to state funding in the private sector – today many companies or private patrons sponsor museum exhibitions, acquisitions and new building work. This philanthropy is linked to a desire to make a difference, so it is unlikely to be strong when the government is seen as the source of all funding – it is most advanced in the USA for example, where government funding is very limited compared to other developed countries.

See also

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