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Charging fees to museums is not the answer
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is an example of a cultural institution in the UK whose main collection is free to explore. Photo: See Less. By Itza.

Given this binary option, who would begrudge paying a fiver, especially if it means seeing some of the world’s most incredible works of art and artefacts? But the reality is not so simple, and not only does Lewis’s preceding argument not stand up, it resigns to overarching neoliberal ideologies that have seen the cultural sector—and everything else in the nation—squeezed to suffocation over the last decade.

Lewis is right that workers’ pay across the sector is low. This applies not just to curators struggling on sub-£40,000 a year, but everybody working full-time within a clogged, trickle-down system: security, cleaners, researchers and handlers among them. And that’s before considering the thousands of freelancers currently lobbying the government for security and rights, including arts writers, who I know firsthand do not see much of the money that’s at the top of the cultural sector.

Yet overwhelmingly, first of all, us low-paid workers manage to not steal from our employers or the nation, so Lewis’s suggestion that charging entry would have prevented the British Museum thefts is not only disingenuous, it’s an insult to every cultural worker.

What’s more, low pay—along with the associated pressures caused by Covid-19, austerity and high energy costs—are not unique to culture, so perhaps we should consider how systemic and structural change may help rather than capitulating to “there is no alternative”.

There is money in the UK, even if the divisions between who owns how much of it are stark. As of 2020, the richest 10% of British households owned 43% of the wealth—according to a report from the Office of National Statistics—while our prime minister has just pledged to increase annual military spending to £87bn a year. Fairer economic and tax systems could release monies to support making and the display of culture. Perhaps millionaires and companies could be encouraged to create a network of foundations in support of culture through taxation and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) processes. Maybe organisations like the British and Science Museums could cast their net wider when seeking new contributors to their development fund, too—not all donations have to come from, as Lewis suggests, Russian billionaires or Big Oil.

Last week I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) with a friend visiting from Chicago, who took delight that its treasures were free to explore and that there were as many children as adults present. Their local Art Institute Chicago costs $32 for visitors and $20 for Chicagoans. Personally, I could not afford $32 entry, and if I had a partner and, say, two mid-teenagers—for whom concession tickets would be $26 each—I certainly could not afford the over $100 total fee. Even if I lived in the Windy City, the still-expensive reduced price would prevent regular visits and any ability to consider and enjoy culture at my own pace.

The underlying question is how we value culture beyond economics. As a child, I learned to like art through repeat experiences, through cultural osmosis, until it became integral to my identity. If we are serious about opening access and diversifying what culture could be, we need to support ways in which everybody can experience it with freedom and at their own pace. If museums are really just another thing to consume after Primark and before some Netflix content, then why don’t we charge by the minute? People who run through the museum à la Franz, Arthur, and Odile in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à part would only need pay £2, while those who dwell are charged a full £30.

Last week I also visited the British Museum. After struggling to get in alongside masses of tourists trudging through airport-style security I was sympathetic to the idea of charging visitors and offering free entry to British residents. But once inside, I remembered that a huge portion of its contents are stolen or leveraged from nations across the world, and I think ethically and fairly we could not expect citizens of those countries to pay to experience their own history abroad.

Lewis calls signs suggesting voluntary donations “underhand”—a point I find confusing considering such donations are optional and the signs are commonplace among charities. He also proposes replacing them with compulsory fee of £5, which would raise the British Museum £29m a year.

The problem is, a fiver may not be much money to Lewis, but to most people it is, and once that tap is turned on it will only turn in one direction. As a director of Hypha Studios, an art charity providing free high street units to creatives for making and exhibitions, I see first hand how much the public desire cultural access. If we charged £5 for entry, for many people that desire would drop away. Fees, even low ones, are yet another psychological barrier to equitable access and a signifier that culture is for someone else.

In his comparison between museums and other means of absorbing culture, Lewis states that “…other forms of culture—theatre, cinema, concerts, English Heritage or National Trust properties—are far more expensive”. It should be pointed out, however, that many are similarly subsidised—both London and New York’s Philharmonic Orchestras are playing Beethoven this month, for example, yet while in the Big Apple the priciest tickets can go for over $400, at the Royal Festival Hall all are listed between £23.50 and £58.50.

And besides, rather than using this point as a tool to beat the life out of visual arts and heritage, why not consider it as motivation to create an infrastructure where not only is visual culture free for all, but musical, film and performance is too?

  • Will Jennings is a writer, artist, educator and curator based in London