Can free museum entry survive the spending review?

One of Labour's greatest legacies is under threat, warns Chris Bryant. 

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With everyone looking the other way this week, the government quietly slipped out the date when it will publish its three-year comprehensive spending review – 25 November. Now I know most people will be worrying about what that will mean for the NHS, for school building programmes, for local authorities, for HS2, but if you care about our cultural life, please put the date in your diary, because it looks like it will be the day that one of Labour’s significant achievements in government, free admission to our museums and galleries, will be given notice to quit.

It was a great achievement. Ever since the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate were created it was a fundamental principle that the great art and artefacts that this country has fashioned, collected, begged, borrowed and bought (I’m cautiously ignoring the bits that we purloined from around the world) were not kept behind a paywall. Everyone could cast a butcher’s over the Rokeby Venus or the Turner bequest – and they could do it every day if they wanted. Unlike France or Germany, where people had to pay, a visit to most of the great British national collections was free. 

It wasn’t true for all galleries, though, by 1997. After years of Tory underfunding several of the key museums and galleries had decided to charge for entry and others were threatening to do the same. That’s where Labour stepped in when we won in 1997, with a political commitment to ensure access for all – and the cash to make it a reality. The results were amazing. The galleries that used to charge saw visitor numbers rise by 150 per cent in a decade. That meant a 269 per cent increase at the National Museums in Liverpool, a 204 per cent increase at the National Maritime Museum and 180 per cent at the V&A. 

There was even a knock on effect for those that had always been free, too. They saw their numbers rise by nearly a quarter. And even more importantly, the new sense that all these museums were ours, that they belonged to the public, changed the underlying feeling of our museums. 

The National Lottery may have rebuilt their fabric – just think of the magnificent central court at the British Museum, the Tate in the Albert Docks in Liverpool, the new galleries at the Imperial War Museum or the new Magna Carta space in Lincoln – but it was free admission that transformed their ethos. Not so much a curators’ den as a gleaming beacon for public curiosity, less the preserve of the self-styled intelligentsia and more a place where everyone can explore the brightest avenues of the human imagination. A place where children are as welcome as adults.

I know there are plenty of Tories who don’t agree with free admission. Hugo Swire, now a Foreign Office minister, blurted out as much when he was shadow arts minister. He was firmly sat on by the Tory high command and both the Tory manifestoes of 2010 and 2015 insisted that they would keep free admission. So I’m delighted that the Government at least pays lip service to free admission. But it’s one thing to say it – quite another to deliver it. 

Aye, there’s the rub, because the trouble is that this Government’s slash and burn attitude to the public sector hasn’t just pared down the budgets for our major museums and galleries, it’s cut deep into their flesh. Since 2010 they have already had to cope with cuts of 30 per cent and this week John Whittingdale confirmed that the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review is requiring them to look at further cuts of 25 to 40 per cent. That means that in the decade from 2010 to 2020 the Government will have cut their funding by a half. Inevitably, however hard museums and galleries try to make up the shortfall with cafes and bookshops, a cut of that order of magnitude will directly put at risk the very concept of free admission, which relies on support from the Government. Either that or all the outreach work will go – so no more creatively designed children’s centres, no more joint educational programmes with local schools and colleges, no more generous loans to local galleries, no more extended hours.

We’ve already seen what these levels of cuts mean across the country. Local councils have seen their budgets reduced and with no special departmental funding available for local government arts and leisure, they have had to take difficult decisions. In recent weeks I have seen magnificently ambitious museum refurbishments and reinventions around the country. 

The Whitworth in Manchester is now a stunning attraction that has rediscovered its mission in the heart of Moss Side, the Ferens Gallery in Hull closed its doors last week for an eighteen month transformation that will see its Frans Hals, its Canaletto and its David Hockneys in a splendid new setting in time for the City of Culture in 2017, and there are great plans for Jodrell Bank, for the Derby Silk Mill and the Leicester Railway museum.

But the Museums Association warns that many of the 700 local authority-funded museums are seriously considering ending free admission. Sadly, this is the future our museums and galleries face if these 25-40 per cent cuts happen – and when John Whittingdale was asked about it he didn’t have a single word to say about how he intends to fight for our museums and galleries, what ideas he has for preserving our national heritage or what credible plan he has to protect free admission. The end result is that either our museums and galleries will steadily diminish into a dusty irrelevance or our great national treasures will disappear behind a paywall.

Yes, I’m sure there will be some eye-catching announcement on 25 November. Osborne will doubtless announce a million pounds here and five million there. It will sound as if he is a great patron of the arts. But the ongoing revenue costs of our museums and galleries –and for that matter our great arts institutions – will be slashed. At a time when we want more tourists to come to this country, when there is a genuine for the arts and when the creative industries are the fastest growing part of our economy, it is sheer madness to consign our museums and galleries to such financial deprivation. 

It is perhaps an irony that it has always been Labour that has fought to conserve our great cultural and industrial heritage – and Conservative parsimony has all too often let it go to rot. When George Lansbury was First Commissioner of Works in the Labour Government of 1929, his first act was to save Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall. When Tony Blair won in 1997 he and Chris Smith put free admission in place. The Tory manifesto promised to preserve free admission, so now the challenge for John Whittingdale is simple – stand up to George’s plans and fight for the DCMS budget.

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