Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Why are museums free?

September 15, 2009 · 1 Comment

I believe that this is a very important question that we must ask ourselves in order to understand museums and London in general. England is one (or maybe the only one, I am still trying to find out) of the countries in the world that has so many big museums which you can enter for free.

Apparently, museums in London used to be private, but in December 2001, the 15 main ones, such as the British, the Imperial War, the Tate Modern, were made public by Tony Blair’s administration. Many supporters of ‘New Labour’ considered this policy to be one of the major achievements of the party’s agenda. The government at the time was seeking to increase museum audience across the multicultural spectrum. They thought that by making the museums free of charge, they would receive not only a larger audience, but a more diverse one. Why museums? As I mentioned in an earlier post, museums have proven to articulate the ideology of the state and work as institutions that reclaim the national identity, much needed to rule a country.

After some time, research showed that, while making the museums public had increased tourism, they did not attract new audiences, but rather more frequent visits by the same crowd as before (mostly white and upper middle class art lovers).

This makes me wonder why there are so many people in London who might have never attended any of these museums and why not? They’re free! But giving further thought to the matter, I realized that the museum is not going to receive more Africa-descended people by exhibiting African masks. The same way Latin American people in London are probably not going to go to the British Museum’s exhibition of Moctezuma. The Victoria&Albert Museum’s fashion exhibit attracts young designers, but that is probably the most “exotic” audience they have.

What is access to culture then? How do we define it? It is certainly not only a matter of financial access, as we can see. I think that, again, it has to do with how people are located in the structure, and how much cultural capital they have. Once more, it might also be strongly related to being able to afford the time to visit a museum.

Categories: Azul
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1 response so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 19th 2009 at 15:32

    Are you saying that London or England is exceptional in the number of free museums? Washington, DC has an extraordinary number of free museums, and if you get outside of London you will find few free museums.

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