Britain Celebrates 10 Years of Free Admission to Museums – Should America Follow Suit?

In celebration of 10 years of free entry to British museums, the Guardian invited Chris Smith, who was responsible for pushing for and end to charging for entry, to introduce a curators and museum-goers who give their favorite pieces from various museums in an article and photo series. Reading the article got me thinking about about admission charges to museums, and I have to say, I am a bit jealous. To be fair, entry to the Smithsonian museums is free, but I recently visited the Metropolitan in NY, and between parking (I know, I was crazy to drive in the city, let alone park) and admission I spent about $70 for my visit to the museum. Worth every penny, no doubt, but should the great museums limit entry to those who have the disposable income to pay the entry fee?

We are unlikely to see free admission any time soon for the reasons laid out in this article on the BBC:

In New York it now costs $25 to get into either MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) or the huge Metropolitan Museum.

This provides serious income: The Met attracted a total of some 5.7m visitors in 2010/11 (although not all were fee-paying). That’s 650,000 more than Tate Modern in London – proof, say some, that people aren’t discouraged by charges if the destination is good enough.

And MoMA says raising its entrance fee this summer by $5 had no effect on visitor numbers.

The idea of making admissions free isn’t really a live issue in the States.

Major institutions focus on outreach projects which encourage the engagement of parts of society otherwise unlikely to visit.

Some see this as a better way of challenging the perceived exclusivity of major museums and art galleries.

(Museum entry fees: How the UK compares | By Vincent Dowd Arts reporter, BBC World Service, 12/1/2011,

So what do you think – does Britain have it right, should entrance to museums be free? Leave your thoughts below.

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  1. Free admission sounds like a great idea, but operating funds need to come from somewhere. The Smithsonian had a huge bequest and has one of the biggest fundraising machines in the business. I certainly think every museum ought to do what it can to keep prices low. For example, our local science center teamed with a retailer to offer discounts on certain days–several timesa year. But to have every museum always free–that would likely take some hefty Federal grants, and I don’tthink the electorate will approve that at a time when so many programs are being cut back.

  2. Sometime over a year ago, Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art, opened it’s doors to the public with free admission. Sponsors and members have helped make this wonderful museum available to the community at large. This year the museum opened a glass studio which is used for demonstrations, classes, etc. If you’re ever in Norfolk, VA, be sure to visit…closed on Mon. & Tues. though. Even though I’m only a basic level member and got in free anyway, I am thrilled to have a small part in helping to share the Chrysler.

  3. Well I don’t know where Vincent Dowd is getting his figures from (he doesn’t quote his sources) but they’re wrong. In 2010, Tate Modern had 5,061,172 visitors and the Metropolitan had 5,216,988. That’s some 155k more visitors.

    These are the figures quoted in The Art Newspaper Annual Survey of Museums – which come direct from the museums. See my website Top 10 Art Galleries and Museums for more details of visitor numbers to the top art galleries and museums over the last three years.

    The other point is that Britain has THREE Museums in the top 5 Museums in the world and entry to all of them is FREE
    #2 British Museum
    #4 Tate Modern
    #5 National Gallery, London

    If you look at the top 30 Museums, 7 of them are in London and only 4 are in the USA. I’ve looked at visitor numbers to museums in the USA and they are much lower than I expected. Visiting an art museum in the USA obviously happens much less often than it does in Europe.

    I cannot help but think that the cost of a ticket to enter a museum in the USA is very significant in relation to the numbers visiting.

    There’s also more than one way of achieving income targets. Of course when numbers are low and ticket costs are high, there’s much less of an opportunity to sell products and services to visitors. Art Galleries and Museums in London are very commercially switched on about their museum shops and eating facilities. The aim of these is to make money for the museum. It’s difficult getting a reservation for lunch some days…..

    Perhaps the most convincing argument is that the notion of setting charges for art galleries and museums which receive public grants is not even on the agenda as the government knows and understands it would be very unpopular were it do so – and that visitor numbers would drop dramatically.

    People very much value the free entry – and they visit in much higher numbers as a result.

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