Can We Afford Free Museums?

When did you last visit a museum?

Free admission to museums around the UK was introduced in 2001. These national museums are sponsored by DCMS, a government department for culture, media and sport. Every year, the Arts Council England (ACE) – who are funded by DCMS – invests £7.5 million in museums.

Since the introduction of free admission, numbers of museum visitors has increased significantly.

“The premise of free admission is to allow people to see the nation’s collections: those things that they already own with no economic barriers to entry.”

– Michael Dixon, Director of Natural History Museum

Admissions to museums which have always been free have also risen; as Michael Dixon suggests, the nature and perception of national museums has also shifted as a result of increased free admissions.

national history museum
Image source: National History Museum

But not everyone agrees with the funding of museums through public taxation and in our current political climate, the allocation of government funding is under the spotlight more than ever.

The ACE describes museums as an “integral part of everyday public life.” But is this really the case? Are museums as integral in the same sense as hospitals?

Probably not. And many argue that having free museums is an idealistic concept. But just because museums don’t affect our physical health doesn’t mean they don’t positively contribute to society in one way or another.

According to the ACE, arts and culture (including museums) are beneficial for 4 reasons:

  • Education: produces well-rounded adults, who contribute as empathetic citizens and creative workers
  • Health and wellbeing: positive impact on general wellbeing, health and life satisfaction
  • Society: creates cohesive communities, reduces social exclusion and isolation
  • Economy: contribution to the national economy and strengthens economies and communities outside of London

With constantly increasing pressure on the NHS, healthcare providers have begun to utilise the arts and culture. As a result, the reduced demand for GP and other mental health services could be saving the NHS £500 million each year.

However, some argue that museums being free of cost supports the idea that art is not worth much and is a second-rate culture. Similarly, others believe government subsidisation produces arts of a low cultural value:

“Not all art can be commercially viable, but the best will be – and the best is all we, the public, need. Subsidising the mediocre doesn’t improve anyone’s cultural life.”

– Douglas McPherson, Telegraph

But the ‘best’ that theatre critic McPherson is referring to is a purely subjective concept.

For instance, a current exhibition at National Museum Cardiff ‘Bacon to Doig: Modern Masterpieces from a Private Collection‘ allows the general public to view private collections of modern British art at no cost. The collection features work by many of the 20th century’s best British artists, including Francis Bacon and David Hockney.

Image source: Megan Sylvester at National Museum Cardiff

So would Douglas McPherson consider the works of Francis Bacon – who is recognised internationally as one of the best painters of the modern era – to be ‘mediocre’?

McPherson fails to recognise the economic barriers of the commercial arts evident in the increase of museum visitors from lower socio-economic groups as a result of free admissions. Therefore, removing government funding of the arts and museums would exclude those who do not have the financial means to enjoy them.

Removing this funding also supports the idea of the arts private goods rather than public, and as a luxury rather than a human right.

It is clear that those, like Douglas McPherson, who already have the financial means to access the arts may never appreciate the value of subsidised arts and culture. Perhaps it is down to us, the public, to take advantage of what is being offered to us for free while we still can.

Discover the UK’s top 20 free museums here.

Featured image source: mymodernmet.com, art by Sophie Cave
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