Commercial entrepreneurism, philanthropy and government subsidy – delivering free admission to UK National Museums

Cultural policy in the UK is devolved to the home nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a central plank to all has been the provision of free admission to National Museums. In England, free admission to charging National Museums was reintroduced on 1st December 2001, following up an election pledge in the 1997 Labour Party General Election manifesto. Although a policy introduced by Labour, all the major political parties currently support this policy, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year.

Using the Natural History Museum (NHM) as a case in point, I illustrate how National Museums in England operate a mixed model of funding which balances commercial entrepreneurism with fund-raising from philanthropic sources, underpinned by a consistent, reliable level of state funding. This model has allowed the NHM to radically reinvent itself, expand its facilities and entertain three times as many visitors annually than were coming in the days of charged admission.

The current UK coalition government are committed to reducing the UK budget deficit, but recognise the value in National Museums having no economic barriers to entry, so have protected them to an extent in the allocation of cuts in government funding to 2014/15, though a real terms reduction of 15% over four years is being absorbed. The government is also committed to encouraging a greater level of income generation from philanthropic giving.

Although there are intermittent calls for a reversal of the policy to reduce reliance on state funding, the arguments for continuing the social benefits of free admission have so far won out. In addition, there are regular debates about the imposition of charging for non-UK nationals, but the National Museums themselves have resisted these calls, citing legal, operational and practical imposition issues. There is also compelling evidence for the role National Museums play in driving in-bound tourism to the UK, particularly London and the resulting value to the UK economy.

The increased audiences achieved by free admission have heralded a golden decade for National Museums in the UK. Larger attendance has driven higher revenues from secondary spend, and have facilitated higher levels of fund-raising from charitable sources. The result has led to many large capital improvements to UK Museums, including the NHM’s celebrated Darwin Centre, which themselves have attracted still greater numbers of visitors in an interesting positive feedback mechanism. This has allowed the percentage of funding from government to decrease, and the real terms value to fall. As a result the free admission model in the envy of many and the aspiration of others.

Presentation

Michael Dixon, United Kingdom

COMMERCIAL ENTREPRENEURISM, PHILANTROPY AND GOVERNMENT SUBSIDY

Watch the presentation.

Watch the interview.

Director of the Natural History Museum

Chair of National Museum Directors’ Conference

M.Dixon@nhm.ac.uk

 

Bio

Director of the Natural History Museum since 2004, he has overseen a period of record growth in attendance to over 4.9million visitors in 2011. He opened the £110millon life sciences complex, the Darwin Centre, to the public in 2009. He is the current Chair of the National Museums Directors’ Conference. He was Director-General of the Zoological Society of London between 1999 and 2004, having previously worked in scientific, technical and medical publishing. He has a PhD from the University of York and studied zoology at Imperial College, London.



Bio

Director of the Natural History Museum since 2004, he has overseen a period of record growth in attendance to over 4.9million visitors in 2011. He opened the £110millon life sciences complex, the Darwin Centre, to the public in 2009. He is the current Chair of the National Museums Directors’ Conference. He was Director-General of the Zoological Society of London between 1999 and 2004, having previously worked in scientific, technical and medical publishing. He has a PhD from the University of York and studied zoology at Imperial College, London.


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