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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Museums count cost of going free
By Tom Bishop
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Natural History Museum
The free entry scheme applies to 50 national museums and galleries
Museums and galleries have attracted nearly 11 million extra visitors since scrapping their entrance fees. So why do they need to embark on a month-long promotional campaign?

Museums that previously charged entrance fees saw a 72% boost in numbers after the government introduced the policy in December 2001.

But the organisation behind May's Museum and Galleries Month says many of England's 1,500 museums and galleries have not reaped the benefit.

"The abolition of admissions charges has generally been a good thing as it has introduced more people to museums and galleries," said Campaign for Museums director Ylva French.

This is evident at London's Science Museum, where numbers have risen 120%, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has enjoyed a 117% boost over the past two years.


However, the free entry scheme only applies to England's 50 government-funded national museums and galleries, the majority of which are based in London.

"This has made it more difficult for those museums in other parts of the country which have to continue charging," Ms French said.

"People ask 'why aren't these free too?' As a result they have not seen the same rise in popularity."

These include Thinktank science museum in Birmingham, whose head Jonathan Bryant described the scheme on its introduction as helping only "the fortunate residents of South Kensington and foreign tourists".

British Museum
The British Museum introduced cuts and voluntary redundancies in 2003
The scheme has also provided new competition to those museums and galleries that never charged an admission fee, which have watched their visitor numbers fall by a total of 700,000.

These include the British Museum in London, which introduced a number of cuts and 75 voluntary redundancies last year. It has since experienced a turnaround in fortunes.

And while the government compensated attractions that abolished entrance fees for loss of income, those that had never charged - such as the four Tate galleries - were not compensated.

Nevertheless museums included in the scheme, such as Liverpool's National Museum and York's National Railway Museum, have enjoyed a significant boost in visitors, with a 106% and 38% rise respectively.


The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has seen its annual visitor numbers leap from 300,000 to 380,000 after scrapping its 6.50 entry charge.

"Getting rid of the charge has had an overriding positive effect," said museum spokesperson Val Smyth.

"It has enabled people to come back as many times as they like, to explore as much of the museum as possible."

And despite its shortcomings, the free admission scheme is seen by the government as a "spectacular" success. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is optimistic that the scheme will be extended beyond its scheduled December 2004 end.

If we do not receive sufficient funding from the government we would consider reintroducing an admissions fee
Natural History Museum
"It is a key part of the government's cultural policy that obstacles to admission should be tackled," a DCMS spokesman said. "Clearly admission fees are the greatest obstacle."

Extra popularity brings new challenges, however. Since lifting its 9 charge, London's Natural History Museum has seen visitor numbers increase by 74% to 2.9 million.

It has had to fund extra staff to cope with the crowds, and the growth in numbers has not been reflected in takings in its shops and cafes.

Like all national museums and galleries, it eagerly awaits a government announcement on funding levels for museum and galleries over the next three years, expected in July.

It comes after a consortium of British museums asked the government for an extra 115m per year to extend access to their artefacts, modernise and build up their collections.

"If we do not receive sufficient funding from the government we would consider reintroducing an admissions fee," a Natural History Museum spokesperson said.

Museum and Galleries Month
TV host Loyd Grossman launched Museum and Galleries Month
While admission fees are an important factor, museums and galleries rely upon capital grants from the government, local authorities, foundations or trusts for their continued success.

This has lead to "pockets" of funding problems for attractions around the country as levels of financial support vary, the Campaign for Museums said.

It also underlines the importance of publicity drives such as Museum and Galleries Month in an increasingly competitive arts and leisure industry.

"Museums are modernising and becoming more interactive, to persuade a wider range of people to explore them," said Ylva French.

"It has been shown time and again that visitors are prepared to pay to see something special.

"Museums and galleries are succeeding by adding extra value to their attractions, rather than just making everything free."

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