Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 17:18 UK

Should UK culture vultures pay?

By Mark Yates
BBC News

Boris Johnson in New York City
Boris Johnson was impressed by New York's approach to donations

London Mayor Boris Johnson wants Britain's free museums to copy New York and put more pressure on visitors to make donations.

With money increasingly tight in the recession, how far should British museums go to win donations from the culture vultures?

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has little time for visitors who want to see its treasures for nothing.

When queuing for an admissions ticket, art lovers are met by signs which not only say that donations are expected, but also make clear what the minimum contribution should be. While it is possible to take the walk of shame into the museum without paying, few people have the nerve.

Emily Rafferty is president of the museum. She said: "We do ask everybody to pay something. If someone did refuse to pay we would have a conversation but we wouldn't turn anyone away."

She said visitors rarely sought to get in for free: "The beauty of it is that people pay what they can afford and they are happy to pay that. It works pretty well."

Compare that with the more restrained approach to donations at the British Museum in London.


At the entrance in Bloomsbury, there are low-key signs suggesting that the museum's five million annual visitors should be reaching into their pockets. And as visitors stroll through the grand entrance hall, a transparent donation box waits patiently for their cash. But it is easy for any visitor to fix their eyes on the exhibits beyond and walk on by.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "recommended" prices

Boris Johnson says it is up to the national museums to make visitors more aware that the institutions cannot survive on thin air.

The London mayor said a New York-style system could work "extremely well" in the UK.

He said London was particularly indebted to its museums: "We have to rise to the challenge brought about by the downturn.

"Arts and culture are not a luxury, they are part of this city's DNA. It is why people want to live and work here, and seven out of 10 tourists say it is a reason for their visit."

'Cynical young people'

He added that free admission was leading some "cynical young people" who visit the museums to conclude that what "they're seeing isn't prized". He said charging might make them appreciate the exhibits more.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport says the unassuming requests for donations at Britain's major museums happens because the taxpayer has already paid once, before they walk in the door.

There's little likelihood that taxation alone will be able to provide sustainable solutions for state-funded organisations
Roy Clare from the Museums Council

A spokesman said: "The national collections were created by acts of parliament and the ongoing funding has come from taxpayers money. The British people shouldn't be obliged to pay again when they visit."

The Science Museum in London said it would continue to seek donations in the same way and had no plans to copy the American model. A spokeswoman said: "It's very different culturally in New York and it might not work over here.

"We do have donation boxes and we very much encourage people to donate."

'Instinctive reluctance'

Roy Clare, chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, thinks museums had to get over an "instinctive reluctance" to pursuing donations from visitors.

He said: "It's not simply about asking for a donation or a voluntary contribution, but it is about developing a relationship with the people who visit."

Mr Clare said museums should try to raise more money through gift shops, catering and special events.

He warned: "There is little likelihood that taxation alone will be able to provide sustainable solutions for state-funded organisations in the current financial climate."

Emily Rafferty said the Metropolitan Museum of New York had brought in the system in 1971 because of increasing costs. Donations at the front desk now make up 13 per cent of the museum's annual budget.

She said: "I wouldn't presume to know what would work in the UK but it has proven to be a solution for us."

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