Our cultural institutions are collapsing – the most obvious solution is to charge tourists

I love museums, and I love the very British obsession with them. Not just the big institutions that stand proudly in our big cities, but the smaller oddities: the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, or the Bakelite Museum in Somerset (temporarily closed, and waiting for a new home). They speak to us as a nation of hobbyists and the obscure: these places are the proud foundation of a niche in a society whose interests are becoming depressingly mainstream.

But museums are also cults. When we talk about free entry for them – and there are hundreds of museums and galleries that offer this – people get very emotional, in the same way they do about the National Health Service. It is as if we believed that free entry was a constitutional right, and attempts to monetize it were an invasion of our freedom.

In a perfect world, it is true, that all our museums would be free to enter. But, as I have said more than once before in this column, there is no more money. So I agree with Mark Jones, former head of the British Museum, who said at the weekend that his old manor should charge foreign visitors to see the wonders of ancient Mesopotamia and Japan.

This area was previously home to the British Museum. I remember the joke about ten years ago, when he proposed an entrance fee for groups of tourists, a policy that has not yet been implemented – although large groups have to book in advance, and are excluded from certain rooms.

Now is the time. I don’t understand why museums haven’t been more aggressive in charging fees in recent years. Why should tourists enter our museums for free? They pay tour operators and hotels, after all, and many of the visitors are rich: the cost of tickets is likely to change little. Some believe that museums that hold the world’s greatest treasures have a moral obligation not to charge visitors; I think this is pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Museums, like anyone else, have bills and staff to pay, and although we in Britain already fund museums through our taxes, there is no contribution from people from abroad.

Why should tourists enter our museums for free?

Why should tourists enter our museums for free? – Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

I really want to go beyond Jones. He thinks foreign visitors under the age of 25 should not have to pay. In contrast, as a way of attracting young minds, and especially the less advantaged, I would recommend free entry for anyone under 18 unless they come from abroad – which could be discriminatory, but young tourists visiting our national institutions are extremely important. they will probably be able to give a museum ticket.

There are plenty of institutions poorer than the British Museum. My current hobby horse – the withdrawal of local council funding from major arts institutions – means that museums across the country have a dire future, and entry fees would do little to stop the closure of those venues. their advice is spot on. on the brink of bankruptcy (or, in the case of Birmingham, already).

As much as people like cake – and I like cake almost as much as I like museums – the beauty of the cafe and gift shop is not enough to keep the wolf from the door.

In recent years, Britain has been squaring up to the idea of ​​a tourist tax, which is already in place in many parts of Europe, and it seemed extremely sensible.

If you want to gauge its potential here, look at Manchester, which began trialling a tourism tax in 2022. Its charges were modest – £1 per night per room for selected hotels in the city – and yet the revenue collected in the first year. £2.8 million. Our museums and galleries may only see a fraction of this, but with higher fees – which I am all for – the money could be spread further. Manchester is a confident city, mixing commercialism with civic pride. Others could learn from him.

Also note that Manchester’s tourist tax is not intended as a deterrent, unlike (say) Venice’s €5 (£4.20) fee for day visitors, which is expressly designed as a deterrent. But such measures are working their way into Britain. The council run by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole recently proposed the country’s first “coastal tourism tax”, although it was put on hold earlier this week after opposition from local hotels.

In Brighton, you now have to pay £1 to visit the pier if you live outside the area. The fee is small, but it raised the question of what constitutes “local”: many visitors worry that they live just outside the area. It is therefore necessary to implement such fees with a careful eye on the geographical reach, and to serve those who live “nearby, but not nearby”.

Last week, I predicted a bleak future for the arts under Labor – although, admittedly, one that would be no bleaker than life under the current Government. But Mark Jones has proposed something that could provide a lifeline for many parts of the cultural sector. I can’t help but doubt that the people who oppose charging entry fees are the same people who oppose most corporate sponsorships. Where they think the money will come is anyone’s guess.

It is certainly not going to come from the next government.

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