So, only two posts in and I decide to make my third a controversial one. Controversial in the museuming world anyway. I mean, it’s not like I’m calling for a nationwide ban on all goldfish, or suggesting that all 18th birthdays should be celebrated with a ritual flogging, or anything like that.
However, there are a few things that I have come to believe in quite strongly during my eight years in a museum (as an employee obviously, not an artefact). One of them is that comments singing the praises of said museum will be written quietly in the comments book, or given verbally in a way that makes you glow with bashful pride; whilst comments that are not praiseful, or are even a little bit spiteful, will be made via the medium of social media. The second is that it’s best not to get drawn into responding to the spite on TripAdvisor or Facebook because if someone has a genuine complaint, they should (and would) voice it through the proper channels, and the last thing anyone wants to do is come across as the ‘crazy lady from that museum’.
This ‘take-the-high-road-and-turn-the-other-cheek-whilst-you’re-at-it’ attitude does get tested now and then though: it’s hard not to take it personally when someone attacks a job or place you care deeply about. Especially when someone refers to the staff as ‘gatekeepers’ and demands to know why it can’t be free entry. On TripAdvisor, because they clearly have a political agenda and no interest in engaging in proper dialogue on this topic.
Free entry has its place and has undoubtedly been the one change that has drawn more people from a wider audience into museums than anything else. However, these are NATIONAL museums. You know, the ones based in cities with departments set up just to deal with corporate sponsorship and massive donations; the ones that attract corporate sponsorship and massive donations by sheer dint of just existing. A recent Museums Association report showed that London museums saw “nearly 90% of individual giving, 68% of corporate funding and 73% of trust and foundation support went to London-based institutions. ”
That is a truly wonderful amount of money and generosity being flung at museums but me, based in my small market town museum with a staff totalling five? Well, I can guarantee you that we saw none of that money and a place like this doesn’t pay its running costs with fresh air and good wishes.
Free entry leaves small independent museums intensely vulnerable to political and economic change. Everyone is for them when times are good, agin them (and anything else arts related) when times are bad. And it’s not just the small ones either – look what Newcastle City Council recently suggested they could lose from their budget: their museums and libraries. Small museums interpret and reflect changes within a society at ground level – they are more flexible, more indicative of the community in which they are based. Their roots are there on display with the artefacts (artefacts that would disappear into private collections or out of the locality they hail from if the museum didn’t exist) and they produce the evidence for the the narrative threads that bind us all in ways that the behemoths just can’t manage.
They provide jobs, volunteering opportunities, work experience, family bonding, learning, events, places for people to showcase their skills whilst others learn new ones, spaces for people to discover who they are; by bringing visitors into a town, they boost the local economy. Above all else, they are living, breathing, interacting community bodies, bringing disparate groups together in one space, that are too often closed or reduced because some simply cannot see the immeasurable benefits they bring.
The ‘gatekeepers’ you so scathingly refer to run education days for schools from Reception through to Year 11, guided tours for groups, historical research for the inquisitive and student, support for local groups, outreach to sheltered accommodation and nursing homes, dementia programmes, family activities, collection care, ethical collection development, curatorial expertise and a place for people to Learn About History. A recent report shows that museums have the ability to ‘foster well-being’ and improve ‘people’s happiness.’ Some of my happiest memories with my daughter are of visiting museums – big, small, paid, free, all and any of them provoke questions, provide us with anecdotes and tales, spark our imaginations.
The tiny one room museum in Fowey (independent, entrance fee a couple of quid) inspired stories of pirates and smuggling; the huge roomed Pitt Rivers (free) in Oxford had us boggle-eyed at the shrunken heads. Each experience was valuable, we have left each and every one of them (and we’ve visited many) with our minds bursting with new stuff we just had to share. The ‘did you see’s and the ‘that was my favourite’s flew for days afterwards.
So, the next time you begrudge your entry fee to a small independent museum please try to remember that the ‘gatekeepers’ are providing a service that has benefits worth far more than their salary (public sector – frozen for the last four years), a service that continues having positive repercussions down the generations, a service that we do willingly at all hours and on all days of the week.
Until governments and councils are legally obliged to continue funding for small museums, until that funding is forever ring-fenced, it is simply too dangerous for such vulnerable institutions to take no money for admissions. The slightest change in fortune can be enough for a council to justify the closure of their museums service, and the income that we collect in admissions currently provides a buffer against that change in fortune.
In short, cough up your three quid and add an extra two as a donation because our roof needs replacing and we can’t find a builder that will work for free. Oh, and the next time you want to take a snide little pop at one of us, don’t use TripAdvisor to do it.