Make Museums Free: What we can learn from Britain and Washington
After two or three centuries in business, public museums have developed into one of the splendours of democracy, the only places where private taste meets elite scholarship and we all pursue our own passions at our own pace. It’s an arena of opinion that permits individualism and innovation to come magnificently alive.
Just one thing is wrong: Going to a museum in Canada costs money. Unlike parks, libraries and cathedrals, museums have box offices. If two adults take three teenagers to the National Gallery in Ottawa, they pay $18. That’s to enter a building that their taxes built, to see art that they, being citizens, own. The Vancouver Art Gallery, which charges $17.50 for an individual ticket, offers a family rate (maximum two adults and four children) for $50, plus tax. Paddy Johnson, a Canadian curator who runs an art blog from Brooklyn, recently wrote: “I’ve never thought the public should be charged to see their own belongings.”
That’s also the British view. In Britain most of the national museums are entirely free, most of the time. In Washington the array of museums run by the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall proudly advertises “admission always free.”
Unfortunately, while charging money at the door supports the running of a museum, it also strengthens the wretched idea that the arts and sciences are the business of a few specialists and the well-to-do. Although many museums have free days or free hours, the existence of a regular ticket price sets the tone. It especially discourages those who find museums a shade intimidating.