There is no such thing as a free lunch, in a free museum

The UK is fortunate to have some of the best museums in the world, stuffed full of treasures and cultural gems that are a veritable feast for visitors.

It’s been more than 11 years since the government’s decision to stop charging for admission to England’s national museums. Figures released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last year show that in a decade, almost 18 million people visited the 13 attractions compared with just seven million in 2000/01. That is an increase of 151%. Amazing figures, and could point to a successful strategy of opening up culture to everyone – an important policy achievement for any government department.

The DCMS also reports that free admission attracts huge numbers of international visitors as I can verify having heard little English being spoken on a visit to two of these august institutions yesterday. This is no surprise when budgets are tight and choices about where to visit in London have to be made; some on content and interest, but I suspect many choices are made purely on budget. Why pay when visitors can just as well tick off key tourist sites by admiring their exteriors (Tower of London and Tower Bridge are just two examples), and then visiting those that are free? You are quids in.

But what of the real cost to these museums and to visitors?

Whilst I applaud the fantastic access these museums have, I can’t help wondering how are they really coping? Some are frankly in need of a good dust, additional toilet facilities, a change of exhibits and have been technically left behind when it comes to sharing information on individual exhibits. A 5x5cm card with tiny writing doesn’t cut it anymore. Others have over-subscribed ‘interactive’ exhibits, whilst others have cornered the dinosaur market and have very popular exhibits that if you are not queuing outside the doors before opening hours, will be jam-packed with eager visitors, wanting to go where you are heading. Even the smallest of children are getting in on the jostling act!

Having to file through channels past a till and member of staff flogging guidebooks and suggesting you donate £5, makes for an awkward greeting. Maps are also available, but with a ‘suggested donation’ which you can ignore. At your peril. At least they no longer give visitors who have donated, a perky little badge to wear that can make them feel smug and superior over those tight-fisted wastrels who can’t be bothered.

Just how many visitors can be squeezed in? Is anyone counting? Is there ever a limit or doesn’t it matter that the visitor experience is so easily spoilt with all the jostling and attempts to see the exhibits? The art galleries now sell timed entry to their blockbusters for just this reason.

I know that there are bills to pay to keep the doors open so plunging into the commercial realms must be the way, but I don’t feel the museums are really being honest. £7.50 for a cup of coffee, soft drink, bag of crisps and small pastry? No wonder parents huddle in dark corners with lunch boxes and hungry children. I shelled out £18 for an adult and child to watch an IMAX documentary of under 50 minutes – there were so many advertisements and trailers, I am not really sure of the film length in fact. But then I felt guilty at having these dark thoughts, as surely the museum needs all the money it can lay it’s hands on? But then aren’t I contributing? Or is it just not enough?

Has anyone measured the impact all these admissions had on traditional paid-for museums and visitor attractions?

One advantage of paying an admission charge is that I don’t then feel I have to shell out at every turn during my visit. Has anyone thought about what we do when the numbers double? Which they will.

This is not a sustainable approach is it?

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