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National Waterways Museum

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 7 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, since other transport museums are open to the public free of charge, they will consider granting free entry to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Docks and Stoke Bruerne.

My Lords, the Waterways Trust is an independent charitable trust that runs three waterways museums. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has provided substantial support, advice and aid to the trust to realise its potential. The trust has also received £100,000 from the Designation Challenge Fund and £40,000 from the Wolfson fund in the past two years. The DCMS has no plans to provide funding for the National Waterways Museum. It is for the trustees of the museum to identify business plans to aid funding and support the preservation of its collections.

My Lords, given that the National Waterways Museum is essentially public-owned and holds important, rich national collections illustrating our cultural and industrial past as well as supporting the modern tourism and leisure industries, will my noble friend give further consideration to granting it the free-entry status currently enjoyed by other national museums and, indeed, university museums? I thank him for his helpful reply, but does he understand that one of the Government’s most popular actions was to give free entry to such important national museums? This would add further shine to that shining example.

My Lords, how could I possibly disagree with my noble friend’s last statement? Although I understand the point he makes, the independent Waterways Trust, which looked at these three museums, said that there is considerable work to be done to set their house if not their boats in order before we could consider giving moneys—which is impossible at the moment because of the upcoming spending review—to enable them to open free of charge to the public. There is a lot of work to be done and the DCMS and officials are having many meetings with museum representatives to try to help them find their way forward.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former president of Gloucester Docks waterways museum. I accept that a lot more work needs to be done, and Gloucester would like a great deal more help with it. However, although entry to the museum is not free, all of the ancillary amenities are a good deal cheaper there than they are in other museums where there is free entry.

My Lords, I visited the museum at Gloucester when I was chairman of the MLA, and it is a wonderful museum. However, it is essential for museums in the 21st century to realise that they have to position themselves for the new world. They have to put on exhibitions that attract visitors, because there is a lot of competition in this market, underwritten by the fact that free entry has been a very positive development.

My Lords, given the unprecedented level of personal wealth in this country, particularly at the top end, does the Minister agree that we should do much more to create a culture of giving? Should not both national and regional museums be doing more to build bridges between themselves and the “Rich List”? Should not museums themselves and especially the Treasury be more creative in encouraging the development of this bridge, and as a nation should we not acknowledge more those who give generously to our national institutions?

My Lords, there are a number of questions there. A variety of tax concessions are already available to encourage private and corporate giving but it appears that they are not generally well known and are not taken advantage of. The DCMS, in conjunction with the Treasury, is therefore producing a booklet to explain the many schemes available that would meet the points which the noble Lord has raised and improve the funding of arts organisations and museums throughout Britain.

I don’t think so at all, my Lords.

The questions so far have concerned regional and national museums. Perhaps I may ask the Minister to put in a plea for local museums. I speak in particular of Wandsworth Museum, which was visited last year by nearly 8,000 children not only from Wandsworth but from other districts as well. It was in grave danger of closure by the council but has now been saved through the financial efforts of an Australian resident of Wandsworth. Will the Minister put in a plea for the continued existence of local museums?

My Lords, the noble Baroness and I have discussed this matter before and I suggested that she personally go to see local councillors, as a result of which they would give her all the money she needs. However, local museums are the responsibility of local authorities. Although we can be from the centre as encouraging as we can, it is ultimately their responsibility. I am delighted that the Wandsworth Museum was saved.

My Lords—as I was about to say—underlining the point made by my noble friend Lord Harrison about the success of the abolition of museum charges, can my noble friend confirm that the number of additional visits that have been made to museums in England since 2001 when the charges went off is a staggering 30 million? Is he aware that, of those, an extra 53 per cent of visitors have visited the National Railway Museum at York and the other museums in the Science Museum family? I declare an interest as a trustee of the National Museum for Science and Industry. Does he not think that free admission is the one way in which it is possible to open up these priceless national treasures to the widest possible sections of the community, particularly the disadvantaged members and children?

My Lords, I absolutely agree that free admission is the bedrock of everything that my noble friend mentioned, but another point that must be considered is: what is in the museum that people want to go to see? Free entry is of great importance, but the quality of the exhibits and how the museum community has modernised itself in the past few years, really setting out to attract the public to come to its museums, is terrific.