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The Arts

Volume 113: debated on Monday 30 March 1987

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Museums (Visitors)


asked the Minister for the Arts what representations he has received about possible initiatives to increase the number of people visiting museums.

None, Sir, but on 17 December 1986 I announced details of a new arts marketing scheme to assist arts organisations, including publicly funded museums and galleries, to find ways of increasing attendances.

The Minister has talked about initiatives for the arts, but he is not doing very well. Is he aware that the increased museum admission charges imposed by the Government are driving people away? Even children are being charged £1 to go into a museum. It is time that the Government changed their mind and did something good for the people in respect of museums.

If not doing well is doubling the number of museums during the past 15 years, the hon. Gentleman should think again. The number of people attending our national museums and galleries is increasing all the time. I am satisfied that we are meeting public demand. As for charges for museum admission, I think that it is right that this matter should be left to the trustees. If the trustees judge that, by raising charges and by getting extra resources for the museums, they will improve facilities, which in turn will attract greater public interest, that is their choice. It is right that it should be their choice.

Will my right hon. Friend deal at long last with the indefensible anomaly whereby five major university museums in England, Scotland and Wales, including the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge, are financed or semi-financed from the University Grants Committee budget? We have to turn away visitors because museums cannot open as often as we would wish. Are these not national museums? Will my right hon. Friend deal with this matter and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science? Can we not end this indefensible anomaly?

I acknowledge the strength of my hon. Friend's feelings. He has raised this matter in debates and in questions. I have had the chance to visit a number of distinguished university museums, but principally this is, and has been for a long time, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Great importance is attached to museums being linked to the university, as opposed to a wider link.

Does the Minister accept that introducing charges for admission to museums is a retrograde step and certainly will not do anything to attract visitors to museums? Should not this policy be reversed? Should not people be given the freedom to go to museums free of charge, thereby widening knowledge and making the best possible use of the assets of our national museums?

I do not think that it is a retrograde step. If the trustees think that, by a voluntary donation system or by admission charges, over and above the basic grant which they receive, they will improve museum facilities, thereby benefiting the public, that is their choice. In the vast majority of countries, whatever their system of payment to the arts, there is a system of charging for entrance to museums and galleries. It is up to the trustees to decide.

Has my right hon. Friend any information about which other countries charge for museum admission and about the effect on attendances?

It is interesting to note that charging occurs in a large number of countries, whatever their system—whether the bulk of their support for the arts is through the state system and the taxpayer or from the private sector. Those countries range from the United States to France and to a museum which I saw not long ago in East Berlin. There is widespread evidence that charging takes place all over the world.

Museum Charges


asked the Minister for the Arts when he last met the Civil Service trade unions and associations to discuss the effects of the introduction of museum charges on attendance.

On 20 February 1986 I met representatives of the First Division Association, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Civil Service Union to discuss a number of questions. The subject of admission charges was raised.

I do not suppose that any of those unions were in favour of museum charges. Is the Minister not being disingenuous in saying that this is a matter for the trustees, as the trustees are charging only because of the low level of Government grant to museums? The Minister must have seen the statements issued by the British museum about the inadequacy of its grant, and no doubt charges will soon be introduced there. How can he defend a situation in which the Natural History museum trustees are about to introduce charges, and estimate that that will reduce the number of visitors by 40 per cent.? Where is the social or economic sense in that? Is it not symptomatic of the Government's seedy, street corner shop mentality towards museums and all other matters?

The resources that are made available to national museums and galleries have gone up by 13 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80. That is not the issue here. It is a matter of whether the trustees want to seek new ways of raising extra revenue. There are thousands, if not millions, of people around the country who are prepared to go to a variety of museums—not only the out-stations of national museums, but the many independent museums, country houses and subsidised theatres where there are charges. That is the choice of the people, and if it helps to improve facilities, so be it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important single factor in determining the number of people who visit a local museum is not the level of charges but the perceived relevance of what is on offer at that museum? I wish to extend to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to the hon. Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) an invitation to come to Eastleigh and see the new museum, which is both relevant and popular.

I hope that the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) will take up that generous offer, particularly during the general election campaign. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the fact that it is the standards of the museum and what it has to offer people that matter, and that they are prepared to pay if they think that the services that are offered are excellent.

Will the Minister confirm that he feels it his duty to preserve the heritage rather than to leave it reliant on tourism or the good sense of trustees?

Our heritage is of the greatest importance. In that connection, I was extremely glad that the week before last, through the acceptance in lieu scheme, we acquired a Constable, which is available from this morning at the National gallery and which will be of great benefit to the nation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be quite inappropriate to give too much weight to the opinion of the Civil Service unions about museums? Most museums are independent, people and their families visit independent museums, and the business is flourishing and growing. For example, next month the Wessex horse centre at Teffont is due to open.

My hon. Friend is right. One has only to travel around the country to see what is happening in the museum world. One new museum is opened every fortnight because of the growing public demand for all types of museum. The evidence of public attendance at museums shows that that demand is being met.

The Minister knows that the charges that are being introduced at the Natural History museum on Wednesday and at three other museums are not, as he has tried to imply, to develop services but to protect basic services for the public. It is because the Government are not providing adequate resources that those trustees are being forced to do that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the 40 per cent. drop in attendance at the Natural History museum that the trustees anticipate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred, represents 1 million people next year? That is the scale of the Government's neglect—1 million fewer people will visit the Natural History museum next year.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. There is evidence that, as was the case at the National Maritime museum, there is a drop in attendances for the first few months after the introduction of charges, but that attendances pick up as people get used to the idea of paying. That is the evidence of experience and the hon. Gentleman cannot get away from it. To suggest that we are not increasing resources for museums and galleries is pure nonsense. There has been a real increase of 13 per cent. since 1979–80, and the hon. Gentleman ought to have the grace to accept that fact.

West Midlands


asked the Minister for the Arts what is his estimate of the number of young people attending arts events in the west midlands.

Separate records by age distribution are not kept. West Midlands Arts supports four arts centres, which it is estimated that 500,000 young people attended in 1986–87. Many young people attend the Royal Shakespeare theatre, the concerts of the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra, and the many other arts events presented in the west midlands.

I am grateful for that answer. Is the Minister aware of the enormous upsurge of interest among young people in urban areas in the arts and cultural activities? Regrettably, that interest is not being properly harnessed because local authorities do not have statutory responsibilities for the arts, funding has been somewhat curtailed and the Arts Council awards have not met the aspirations of the west midlands region. Can the Minister suggest any inititiatives that he or the Government could take to harness the interests of young people who want far more to do with arts and cultural activities?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is singularly important to encourage young people to attend arts events and the figures that I gave of at least 500,000 attendances during this financial year at the four great arts centres in the west midlands—which are supported by £417,000 of taxpayers' money donated by the West Midlands Regional Arts Association — show what is being done, in addition to our education system, to encourage our young people.