It could have a been a slip of the tongue. The second slip of the tongue, in fact, during his non-probing interview with Andrew Marr on BBC1 this morning.
But something left me feeling that the culture secretary John Whittingdale chose his words carefully when he confirmed that ‘national museums’ would remain free to entry. The point was further re-inforced by his clumsy reference to London as a ‘country’. (The segment can be found on iPlayer at minute 38).
What would become of all the amazing museums and galleries that are not either in the capital or represent national collections?
I turned to the Conservative manifesto – just one line (P41) refers to the issue but yes, the same phrase: “keep our major national museums and galleries free to enter.”
And the minister’s sign off on the topic provided no comfort either – highlighting the capital’s museums and galleries’ role in increasing tourism.
While tourism is a welcome side effect of engagement with our cultural institutions, it’s worrying if that’s to become the ultimate measure of a museum’s success. What about our cultural identity, our education and understanding our heritage?
Any limitation or change to the free access rules wasn’t the expectation of the Arts Council ahead of the election. In April, it understood the commitment to be:
“The Conservative manifesto commits to maintaining free access to museums and galleries and supporting plans for the Factory in Manchester, an India Gallery at Manchester Museum, a Great Exhibition in the North and a new concert hall in London. They also promise to maintain and potentially extend tax reliefs for the arts and creative industries and deliver free Wi-Fi and support for e-books in libraries.”
So was it simply a lack of expansion in the minister’s communication on live television or a signal of something more worrying to come? Time will tell I guess.
I realise there will be some reading this blog post who consider museums and art galleries to be a fluffy luxury of the middle classes. Maybe some who don’t see the value in ‘these times of austerity’.
To those I’d say, museum’s aren’t simply repositories of old stuff for overseas visitors to enjoy, they are living, changing reflections of our society, an important part of the fabric which binds us together even in our modern times.
There’s a reason so many were started by Victorian philanthropists – they knew that access to culture provided for a more peaceful and productive working population.
To use an extreme example, there’s also a reason IS so determinedly destroy cultural artefacts – they are not mere trinkets, cultural destruction is one of the surefire ways to destroy a society.
The UK is fairly unusual in Europe with the free entrance introduced in 2001 and it has been widely enjoyed by many. It’s worth remembering that the initial moves were only legislated for those ‘major national’ institutions. But then, as the Museums Association discovered, the move had a detrimental impact on those independent museums and those outside London:
Free entry at national museums has inevitably had an impact on the rest of the museums sector – particularly on independent museums, which rely on charging. This has led some to argue that free entry amounts to unfair government subsidy.
There is some evidence that charging museums – particularly those near newly free museums – have experienced a decline in visitor numbers. There was also a perception that free admission was weighted heavily in favour of apparently already wealthy London museums with little benefit to the whole spread of museums throughout the UK.
The pressure from those that had been excluded in 2001 led to changes from the DCMS of the time which allowed more museums, including University museums and galleries, to introduce free entry in 2005.
That’s how we got the decade of free entrance we’ve all since enjoyed. Let’s hope Mr Whittingdale can find the time to travel abroad (outside that London country) to understand how important that has been and ensure the next decade of free access.