OPINION - Rachel Johnson: Should we charge for London's museums? Yes, but only in this way

 (NHM London)
(NHM London)

Every Sunday I take the Tube to my office in Leicester Square, exit via the Big Issue seller on Charing Cross Road, dive right into the square, where it’s so jam-packed with people eating take-out I can’t see the queue for Magic Mike or the busker standing at a mic, amp and a bucket killing Shallow.

I have the same thought every time: London is way too crowded! This city has too many people, and not enough money. This cannot go on!

Obviously the capital isn’t sinking into the ooze of a lagoon, but couldn’t we channel Venice in some way and charge tourists — not Londoners, I hasten to add, not Brits — a bit for the pleasure of our company?

Last month Venice became the first city in the world to tackle the pandemic of over-tourism with a per diem. Day visitors to La Serenissima have to cough up five euros which for my money isn’t really worth the administrative candle. I’d make the 20 million day-trippers pay 50 euros — this would help fund the restoration of the rotting foundations of the historic housing stock, and help make life for the 50,000 permanent residents more bearable.

How would it work here? Venice is a museum city — London a city with museums, and more. An entrance fee — a QR code on your phone as in Venice — wouldn’t work. It’s too big. In Venice, trippers want to see St Mark’s Square, the Rialto, grab a pizza, and go.

Entrance fees are a can of worms that most leaders of the public art field are reluctant to open

What about making some of our free “visitor attractions” less… free, and if not less free, less easy? After all, they need the money.

Take museums and galleries. The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Serpentine, Tates Modern and Britain, the V&A… all free, with paid entrance only for the temporary exhibitions.

Yet since 2009 — ie since “austerity” — local authority spending on museums and galleries has shrivelled by 36.7 per cent. It’s all about fundraising and sponsorships these days — basically doing anything rather than charge something.

George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, has done (some say) a dirty deal with BP, which is giving £50 million to the museum, the biggest donation ever to the UK cultural sector.

Of course I see it’s problematic for the BM — a so-called “world museum”, with a somewhat contested collection — to consider charging. But £5 a head from its 5.8 million visitors would raise £29 million, so surely this is something the former chancellor should be at least considering?

Theatre, concerts, cinema, Netflix, English Heritage, National Trust — they all charge. St Paul’s Cathedral asks its two million annual visitors — 80 per cent from overseas — £25 a head (ish) to defray the many millions it costs to maintain the ineffable glories of London’s parish church. Not charging — and underfunding — leads to institutional capture of museums and galleries by elites, wealthy individuals, and corporates keen to art-wash their reputations, according to the art critic Ben Lewis, writing in the Art Newspaper. I put this to some of the great and the good of the art world.

David Ross, chairman of the NPG, says the gallery receives £7.5 million grant-in-aid (a modest sum compared with the Science Museum’s £52 million and the V&A’s £43 million) but he’s proud the NPG’s permanent collection is nonetheless free to view.

Ditto Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Galleries, that oasis of art and architecture in an oasis of green. And David Olusoga, the historian and filmmaker, told me that as a child he was inspired by taking a coach with his mum from Gateshead, with a packed lunch, and walking into the National Gallery. He reeled off the paintings that had blown his socks off as a boy: “Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, the Holbein, the Titian.”

Entrance fees are a can of worms that most leaders of the public art field are reluctant to open. So here’s my alternative proposal. Let schoolkids and under-18s in free, sure. And let members of the museums visit at will too. I’ve thought about entrance fees for overseas visitors only but, as you guessed, it’s complicated.

But how about demanding adult visits should be booked in advance, with a credit card, which is only debited if you fail to show up (this system should be applied for GP and hospital appointments too)?

This would encourage annual memberships, discourage over-tourism to the capital in general, and prevent those idle drifts of tourists standing in front of the painting I want to stare at. Win, win, win.

Rachel Johnson is a contributing editor of the Evening Standard