|Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2001 - 04:42 pm: |
Museums to scrap entry charges
Vote makes free admission to all national collections inevitable
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Thursday May 24, 2001
Universal free admission to the national museum collections became a certainty yesterday when the trustees of the Natural History Museum bowed to the inevitable and voted to scrap the £9 adult admission charge. Their decision was followed within hours by the National Maritime Museum, which will also be free from December.
The culture secretary, Chris Smith, who described free admission as "a bit of a personal crusade", was exultant. "It is very good news indeed," he said.
David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund, the charity which has led the campaign for free admission, said: "To have all three flagship South Kensington museums going free is wonderful news." The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum have already decided to abandon their charges.
The decision was also welcomed by Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, where free admission was seen as crucial in achieving the stunning 5.2m first-year visitors at Tate Modern, and Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, who resisted tremendous pressure to introduce charges under the last Tory government.
The Natural History Museum was seen as the greatest single obstacle to free admission to all the national collections.
Its trustees, and director Sir Neil Chalmers, have been implacably opposed: uniquely among the big museums they saw charging as a positive factor which made visitors appreciate the experience more.
The breakthrough on free admission came in the budget, when the chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced that free museums will be able to reclaim VAT. The fact that previously only charging museums could do this has cost the free institutions a fortune: VAT added more than £5m to the cost of the British Museum's great court project.
The Department of Culture has also found funds to compensate the museums for abandoning charges. Yesterday Mr Smith pledged that the extra money will be continued under any future Labour government, and will not be clawed back from other grants.
Mr Smith denied gossip in the museum world that his department had put ferocious pressure on the Natural History Museum's trustees to fall into line. He said that there had been several meetings on the subject. "A friendly discussion was had, and they agreed pretty readily actually."
Both Roy Clare, the new director of the National Maritime Museum, and Sir Neil Chalmers entered caveats yesterday. Mr Clare's statement described admission charges as suspended rather than scrapped, and warned: "The success of the scheme in the medium to long term depends upon a fair VAT regime and the maintenance by central government of satisfactory levels of grant in aid."
The trustees of the Imperial War Museum have still to vote, but their decision looks like a done deal. There is still an unresolved row over the university museums, which are threatening to introduce charges rather than become the only free museums which cannot reclaim VAT. They are funded through the Department for Education, and have been left out of the VAT scheme. They include collections such as the Ashmolean in Oxford, the oldest public museum in the world.