The Museums Association is currently debating whether museums should promote 'wellbeing' or 'social justice' - or maybe a bit of both. The problem is that once you start selling yourself as a tool to promote fashionable public policy targets, you find yourself in a competition you cannot win. You can twist museums to new ends, but most museums were founded long before people started thinking of wellbeing as a goal explicitly to be promoted by public institutions and museums are not well designed for these arbitrary new purposes.
If the claim to funding rests on the ability of museums to promote wellbeing, the question isn't whether we should or should not provide free access to museums, but rather whether the 'wellbeing budget' will be spent more efficiently on museums or on something else. It might provide better value for money if we closed all museums, sold off their musty old collections, and put the cash towards yogic flying instead. People reasonably wonder why museums are free, but swimming pools charge. Let's defer the debate about the purpose of museums, but we should recognise that these are weak arguments when competing for a limited and diminishing pot of public money.
Other false friends think museums should be free because they are good value for money on an economic calculation. They cite studies purporting to demonstrate the positive economic contribution of culture. Even if we accept their dodgy research, do they really imagine that this effect is greater because museums don't charge? As if millions of visitors to crowded museums like the Louvre and Prado don't spend money elsewhere because they have to fork out for admission. Given the high proportion of overseas visitors, free admission represents a subsidy by British taxpayers to wealthy foreign tourists. Speaking as a British taxpayer, I'm happy to contribute to that subsidy - seems very hospitable, and the least we can do given that we're disproportionately blessed with masterpieces from around the world. But the purely economic logic seems pretty tenuous.
I also have a moral challenge to free admission. Free admission has become an absolute that is defended with hysterical zeal, and that zeal has blinded its advocates to other kinds of harm. People fight for free admission even as other changes destroy the quality of the museum experience, corrupt its purpose and damage the artifacts that museums were supposed to protect. Funding cuts have caused some museums to cut back on essential security, and others to permit riotous behaviour upon payment of a modest fee. These debasements are far more serious than the threat of admission charges, but they pass largely unmentioned.
The National Gallery reduced the number of guards in its galleries. Shortly afterwards two Poussins were vandalised. At the Tate it's sometimes hard to find any guards at all; they seem to move around in pairs chatting to each other, avoiding visitors where possible. A Rothko was recently vandalised there. The Wallace Collection raises cash by hiring itself out as a venue for posh parties. A frame was recently damaged on a painting that was on loan. Precious and fragile objects that were left in trust to nation, and which had rarely been moved, are now shuffled in and out of galleries on a regular basis to make space for dinner guests. Where a reverential attitude was once maintained, drunken revellers now stumble. Obviously free admission doesn't cause these harms, but revenue from admission charges could ameliorate them.
For all that, I'm actually a strong supporter of free admission to museums. People whine about snootiness and elitism discouraging people from visiting, which strikes me as errant nonsense. But cost is a real barrier; it is a barrier to any kind of entry, but it's especially a barrier to the kind of spontaneous brief visits that are the best introduction to more sustained engagement. In London, where I live, I go little and often, sometimes popping my head around the door and leaving if it's too crowded, or just going to see one or two things. If they charged admission, I expect I'd be able to buy an annual ticket for the National Gallery, but I'd probably never return to Tate Modern, which I visit maybe a couple of times a year.
A robust case for free admission requires greater intellectual courage from supporters of museums. We must be able to make a strong case for the value of museums in their own terms, rather than hitching them to fashionable agendas. Some people do, and not all who speak up for free admission are guilty of the errors I've highlighted. But for now, the agenda has been captured by fools and knaves. I am loath to see admission charges introduced, but they are a lesser evil then the defilement of museums as raucous party venues, or damage to collections that they cannot guard.