Public Access and Blockbuster exhibitions

This is draft of letter to Museums Association

Public Access and Blockbuster Exhibitions

On my recent visit to Tate Modern I was delighted to see that visitors could see a fair number of Gilbert and George paintings without having to pay to see the private view. This is a policy which should be repeated at more of our major galleries – it provides a proper balance between the commitment to free museum visits and the commercial need to create income.

It is a balance that has been in some danger of going wrong in recent times, with the large number of blockbusting shows going around. These have the effect of removing from free view major paintings and forcing the visitor to pay to see these painting. My last visit to the National Gallery, at the time of last year's Constable Exhibition, revealed a room denuded of many of its great paintings. At the same time half the Marriage a la Mode series were also missing, which destroyed the visitors enjoyment of the narrative of Hogarth's great sequence. This year the Holbein and the Hogarth exhibitions have removed great paintings from free view often to show them at a large price – just down the road, or round the corner in another public museum.

At least in the case of the above one could argue that the paintings were gaining a larger or different audience by being moved, but the Boucher exhibition at the Wallace Collection removed from free view all their many Bouchers and put them in another gallery in the same Museum but charged the user for the privilege. If I remember rightly, no Bouchers were left on free display – at the time, this felt like being cheated.

I understand the necessity of generating income and I understand the occasional need for retrospectives bringing together a large body of art to be seen together and compared. However, the number of big comprehensive blockbuster exhibitions travelling the world creates holes in much loved collections and in effect forces people to pay for something they normally get for free.

However, it is not just the exhibits that can be affected by Touring Exhibitions. The British Museum has just removed free access to the British Library Reading room for 2 years while it houses blockbuster exhibitions including the Chinese Terracotta Army. Welcome as it is to be able to see the Army in the UK surely the loss of access to the Reading Room is not justified? Public access to the Library was part of the scheme which the public funded through Heritage Lottery Funding. It not only provided access to a glorious space with great historical associations but it also gave a great room for contemplation, for study, and access to the Paul Hamlyn Library. The later has now been moved to inadequate space in Room 2. The Museum is weakened by this decision. In similar vein the V&A has often withdrawn access to the Gamble, Poynter and Morris rooms to hire them out for private functions.

A final area where more care needs to be taken to provide reasonable access is in catering. The worse example, is the Wallace Collection Cafe where the pricing is so high that it effectively takes the public funded eating space out of bounds of any but the well-off. While prices at most other free museums are lower than the Wallace Collection a small bottle of water at the British Museum is still £1.70. I'm not against quality dining in our Museums but consideration should be given to children and families so that they can at least have a glass of water and something to fill their stomachs without taking out a loan. A code of practice should be in place and those seeking the concession for the catering in a public funded museum should be told they have to provide, water, tea and coffee at a reasonable price and at least one low priced food option – such as a soup or a sandwich, should be on offer.

In summary, I would suggest that the Directors of our great Museums need to weigh up more carefully their commercial decisions – they are public service organisations funded by the public. I would commend the example of the Tate Modern, and suggest that one way they can balance income with access is to place an appropriate proportion of the Exhibition on view free to the public as at the Tate Modern. Also, Directors should think hard to ensure their own displays are not weakened during the period of loan and that the demands of blockbuster exhibitions do not in effect cheat the public from enjoying free access to their heritage.

Is it possible that the Trustees and the Directors are too involved in the struggle for funding to see clearly the issues in relation to public benefit? Perhaps we need Museum user groups and Friends Groups to become more vociferous to remind the Trustees of their duty to their visitors?


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