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Museums shouldn't be free. Here's why.


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After New York’s Met recently announced its change to entrance fees – making the $25 charge required instead of suggested – it has raised the question should museums be free of charge to the public.

The Met museum in New York, which will soon charge tourists a $25 entrance fee

In an ideal world the answer would be yes, keep museums free for all. However, that is impractical and potentially not sustainable for museums. With funding decreasing every year, and many patrons not paying a suggested fee or even donating after their visit, museums are struggling to find funds to keep their exhibits running. 

Currently, the national museums in London remain free to the public and have been since April 2001. There are currently 50 free museums across the UK. Whilst that is wonderful for us, the public who want to see what these museums have to offer and teach us, it’s not always the best for the museums themselves who have been facing increasing hardships in terms of funding.

In 2017 the Museum Association conducted a survey investing how funding cuts are affecting museums. The survey states that “many publicly-funded museums are facing a funding crisis. English museums have suffered a 31% real-terms cut in local authority funding since 2010.” The survey further went on to say that “almost half of all museums report a year-on-year increase in visitor numbers”. Arguably, the free admission makes museums more attractive to the public – after all it is a free day out. For families it is an easy and educational day out for children and for tourists it makes their trip that little bit cheaper.

This reduce in funding also effects staff numbers and morale. The Museum Assocation writes that “there are widespread concerns low morale and the loss of experienced staff across the UK.” Statistics in the survey show that across national museums, there has been a 55% decrease in staff members. How are our national museums, which our country prides itself on, supposed to function without enough experienced staff members? 

London's Natural History Museum

Writing for the BBC in 2013, Husna Husain writes that “If more museums were to adopt free admission policies, support mechanisms would need to be in place.” Mechanisms such as high government grants, increased private donations and public membership programmes to support the institution. Having free admission places the pressure elsewhere. Would we rather have the government fund education and the NHS or fund our museums? 

There are obvious negatives to museum entrance fees. Museum entry fees can be expensive and can be the one thing that prevent people entering a museum at all. Writing in The Boston Globe in 2015, Daniel Grant comments on New York City’s high museum fees as “cultural apartheid […] cost of culture has effectively priced but a large segment of the city’s population”

It’s easy to understand how making entrance fees mandatory will restrict the accessibility of museums. Students living on tight budgets and large families arguably won’t be able to fork out the extra cost.

However, many museums who charge fees do have certain days of the week where admission is free. For instance, the Brooklyn Museum in New York is free every first Saturday of the month between certain times and the Museum of Modern Art is free every Friday from 4 – 8pm. Is this a system that all museums should adopt? It’s definitely a possible solution that might help the fight the effects of reduced funding. 

The national museums have found another way to make money, by charging for specific exhibits. Whilst on the surface that seems fine enough, this creates a ‘blockbuster’ atmosphere surrounding certain exhibits and arts pieces according to The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones in 2015. Famous pieces of art have arguably become money making schemes for the museums to make profit. Surely a reasonable entrance fee would allow entrance to all exhibits no matter the reputation of the artwork?

Ultimately, entrance fees are important for museum sustainability. Whilst free musuems make history and art available to all, it also leaves museums relying of governemnt funding and the hope that people will donate after their visit. Small and reasonable museum entrance fees would take pressure off museums who are losing out on funding, staff members and profit.

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