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May 27th, 2016
Education • Cities

Universal free admission to the UK’s national museums

Charging for entry to national museums has been a contentious issue since the 1960s. Successive governments have changed the policy, with Labour governments in favour of universal free admission and Conservative governments opposed to it. The Labour government of 1997 promised to reintroduce free admission and finally did so in 2001, since when it has become an accepted fact of cultural life. However, although admissions have risen massively, there remain doubts that it has resulted in the desired levels of social inclusion and participation.

The initiative

In 1997, the new Labour government made a commitment to reinstate free entry for national museums in order to have a more diverse range of visitors. “Following a campaign led by the museums themselves, the Art Fund [then the National Art Collections Fund] and others, entry charges were dropped in stages - for children in 1999, the over-60s in 2000 and finally for all visitors from 1 December 2001". [2] VAT regulations had stood in the way of the introduction of universal free entry, the last of these stages, until the chancellor of the exchequer included changes to VAT in the 2001 budget. “Gordon Brown, announced that free museums [would] be able to reclaim VAT. The fact that previously only charging museums could do this has cost the free institutions a fortune”. [3]

The national museums that had adopted admission charges agreed to drop them in return for extra government funding to compensate for lost income from selling tickets. These museums made admission to their permanent collections free from December 2001, although they continue to charge for special exhibitions, a strategy that has been adopted by the majority of museums, including the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate - at all its galleries. “The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales also agreed to fund free entry at the national museums which they support, and free entry for all was introduced at all their sites in April 2001". [4]

The challenge

In the 1980s, “the UK's national museums faced political pressure from the Conservative government to charge for admission, to make them less dependent on government funding". [1] About half of the major national museums did eventually introduce charges. The other half - including the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery - resisted, and retained free admission.

Over the next 15 years, visitor numbers at many of the free national museums grew spectacularly, while some of the charging museums suffered marked declines. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London introduced a £5 admission charge in 1997 and saw its visitor numbers halved as a result.

The public impact

The national museums which dropped charges all saw substantial increases to their visitor numbers, an average of 70 percent. In the first year after free admission was introduced visitor figures to the V&A rose by 111 percent from 1.1 million to 2.3 million. In 2009, the Art Fund found that “since free admission was introduced in 2001, visits to previously charging museums have more than doubled, from 7.2 million eight years ago to 16 million last year". [5] Eight out of the top ten UK visitor attractions in 2010 were free national museums. “There were 40 million visits to national museums and galleries in the 2011/12 financial year, a record number". [6]

However, "there have been relatively small changes to the profile of visitors". [7] In its 2009 research, the Art Fund found the same, that “despite the removal of admission fees, other barriers remain which prevent people from visiting galleries and museums. A lack of knowledge about the art on display and a feeling of intimidation about the buildings themselves made people feel that they were not qualified to appreciate the art owned by the nation”. [8]

Stakeholder engagement

There were a number of stakeholders involved in the campaign for free admission, and in implementing the policy:

  • The government, particularly the Labour government of 1997-2001, which was committed to the policy and implemented it.
  • Government departments, such as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is responsible for direct funding, and the Treasury.
  • The national museums themselves, particularly the ones that had either retained free admission or were keen to adopt it.
  • The visitors to the museums, and the educational establishments, such as schools and colleges, that arrange group visits to the national collections.
  • The campaigning institutions, particularly the Art Fund, which spearheaded the campaign and also funds acquisitions by national collections.
  • Funding institutions such as the Arts Council.

Not all museums and their trustees were behind free entry, though. “Universal free admission to the national museum collections became a certainty yesterday [23 May 2001] when the trustees of the Natural History Museum bowed to the inevitable and voted to scrap the £9 adult admission charge. Their decision was followed within hours by the National Maritime Museum, which will also be free from December". [9]

Political commitment

The elected labour government were strongly in favour of free admissions to museums, overturning the changes made by the Conservative government in the 1980s. The coalition government confirmed the previous government's commitment to free museums in its 2010 spending review, the year it took office. “We are maintaining world-leading museums and galleries, and supporting the wider museum sector, by:

  • Providing funding for national museums and galleries.
  • Providing free public access to the permanent collections of national museums and galleries ...
  • Continuing to fund ‘capital improvements' (like renewing displays or interpretation) for museums and galleries". [10]

It has become an established pillar of national cultural life, and the present Conservative government has no intention of introducing admission charges.

Public confidence

The Labour Party was re-elected in 2001 with a landslide victory, indicating that confidence in its policies was high. The Conservative Party made its intention to leave free admission as it was quite clear before the 2015 General Election, implying that it did not see reinstating a charging policy as a potential vote-winner.

The huge increases in visitor numbers since 2001 (see Public impact above) suggest that the public have taken advantage of free museum entry and support it in principle. “It is interesting to note that just one

in five of those who know about free admission, and who have been to a museum or gallery recently, say that this was purely because they knew that entrance was free". [11]

However, the criticism remains that, while the policy provides for wider access to museums in theory, it has yet to demonstrate true social inclusion, except through educational visits by schools:

  • “While 15% of the British public say they have made more visits, this rises to 20% among ABC1s, 21% among people living in the South, and 29% among people with a degree … [12]
  • “In addition to the 40% of the public who are not even aware that entrance charges have been scrapped, a similar proportion know that the national museums and galleries are free to enter, but have not made any more visits.

A component of the growth in museum admissions stems from foreign visitors, who make up around 40 percent of visitors.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of the policy were simple and clear – to provide universal free admission to the permanent collections of national museums and to broaden the range of visitors.

Strength of evidence

There was evidence from the previous policy changes that scrapped admission charges would lead to a significant growth in visitor numbers.  After the Conservative government reintroduced admission charges in the 1980s, “over the next 15 years, visitor numbers at many of the free national museums grew spectacularly, while some of the charging museums suffered marked declines”. [13]

However, there was no clear evidence that this inevitable growth would result in greater social inclusion, or that free admission was the only means of gaining large visitor numbers. For example, the major national museums of other countries, e.g. the Louvre in Paris and MOMA in New York, charge for entry and have high levels of attendance.


The main feasibility factor is financial. The government provided direct funding through the DCMS (and in some cases the Department of  Education) to compensate the museums for lack of income due to ticket sales. The Chancellor introduced changes to the VAT laws in the 2001 budget so that non-charging museums could reclaim VAT, another source of funding via tax relief. Museums have added the option of voluntary donations, adopted admission prices for temporary exhibitions, and are also funded from a range of charitable donations and sponsorships.

The other important aspect of feasibility is social feasibility, whether the free admission would actually result in greater social inclusion. It would seem that the policy did result in more admissions, but this has been seen mainly in the AB social groups. It is perhaps not feasible for a single arts policy to effect a major social change.


The government was responsible for managing the original policy of introducing free admissions, with the DCMS being centrally involved.

The DCMS provides direct funding for the museums, although ‘at an arm's length.' The museums manage themselves independently, not charging for tickets, but charging for specific exhibitions. The government is not involved in their day-to-day business operations.

“Each institution is run by an independent Board of Trustees ... The national museums are also exempt charities, and the Secretary of State acts as their Principal Regulator". [14]


Museum visitor numbers are constantly measured. They showed that visitor rates increased 70% on average in the first year of free admission.

Furthermore, surveys were undertaken investigating the impact of free admissions on the demographic of visitors to see if free admission had altered the visitor profile.

Additionally, the government has set out how funded museums will be evaluated and measured: “Funding agreements 2008-11 set out how the museums and galleries meet our priorities and how their performance will be measured". [15]


Different government departments, such as the DCMS and the Treasury, collaborated in enabling universal free admission to be introduced in 2001. The chancellor's change to VAT regulations was crucial, in that it made free admission financially viable and served to bring many of the museums onside.

The initial campaign was well conducted, through organisations such as the Art Fund. The museums were generally favourably disposed to the policy and cooperated with it. However, there were dissenting voices, such as the Natural History Museum and the National Maritime Museum.

“As the Director of the Natural History Museum recently pointed out, the increase in visitor numbers brings its own pressures. A large proportion of visitors are not spending any more inside museums and galleries than they did when they had to pay to get in". [16]

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