By Joe Harker
Since 2001 national museums in the UK have been free to enter, with money from visitors coming in the form of donations or purchases in the gift shop. The policy has helped visitor numbers rise to all time highs and successive governments have prided themselves on making museums available to everyone in comparison to certain other countries where entry fees are still the norm.
Free museums and galleries are thought to bring the UK around £1 billion a year from tourism as people from all over the world visit exhibits. However, there are some who believe an entry fee should be charged for national galleries, whether that be for everyone or specifically for tourists.
A study from the Centre for Public Impact found that making museums free hugely increased their visitor numbers. While there were doubts that making museums free had resulted in new levels of social inclusion and participation it was clear that more people were visiting museums.
Despite the removal of admission cost there are other reasons certain groups of people still do not attend museums in the numbers hoped for when fees were dropped. The Art Fund found that people who didn't already know enough about the exhibits or who felt intimidated by the museum buildings themselves feared "they were not qualified to appreciate the art owned by the nation".
Once a government sets a precedent for making national museums free it is hard to step back from that policy without looking like you are trying to cut off the general public from culture. Simon Jenkins argues in the Evening Standard that it's "not a sin" for museums to charge entrants.
He advocates for allowing locals free entry but charging tourists, arguing that 60 per cent of visitors to the British Museum are foreign tourists who pay fees for museums in other countries without complaint. He also suggested museums should develop new permanent displays and open later in the evenings so the public can visit them after work.
Johnathan Jones also believes tourist groups should have to pay for entry. He argues that large tour groups are a nuisance for other visitors as they crowd the museum and have paid plenty of money to their tour guides. Why shouldn't some of that go to the museum they are being shown around?
Rachel Cooke of The Guardian believes that wealthier visitors should have to pay to allow poorer entrants free admission. She argues that since the profile of museum visitors in the UK has not changed, still being "middle class, educated, in work", they should pay to provide funding that will allow the museums to attract visitors from different parts of society. Quite how this would be done is unclear, would visitors have to carry around a payslip to prove how much they earned?
It is a dilemma faced by many museums in the UK. As they receive less in government funding and many visitors walk past the voluntary donations box without slipping in a few quid they cannot expand their collections and many are running at a deficit.
Do they push to reintroduce funding for certain visitors, aware that it is a slippery slope that could lead to more groups being charged entry and perhaps even chase away potential entrants? Or do they stick with the free model and continue on as they have done, standing by the principle that free entry is the right thing to do?