As Director of National Museums Liverpool, this week I found myself discussing with Brian Sewell (on BBC Radio 5 Live) whether the nation can afford free access to national museums. Sewell is an outspoken character who expresses extreme views on a range of subjects, including, I recollect, all things northern. Not my ideal choice of debating partner as I usually disagree vehemently with what he says, but no-one told me beforehand that he would be sharing the airspace with me, so I was taken by surprise. As it turned out, Sewell was quite mild on the subject of admission charges to national museums, and at one stage he actually said he’s not in favour (but is merely in favour of considering the reintroduction of charges).
Sewell seems to think that a universal admission charge of £1 might solve a lot of problems. He’s wrong. National museums are great institutions that cost many millions of pounds to run properly, because they perform a huge range of jobs – looking after the nation’s collections (the best in the world) of natural history, science, social history and art, for example, and making these collections accessible to as many people as possible. Politicians in the past have decided to introduce admission charges to national museums, and it has never worked: every single time, the charges were eventually removed, because the loss of value to the public (and especially the loss of value to young people and others on low incomes) far outweighed the relatively tiny sums of money raised. No, admission charges are a red herring. They solve nothing. They just do damage to a museum’s ability to reach as many people as possible.