Butler on Museums

The American bank robber, Willie Sutton, was asked why he persisted in robbing banks.”That’s where the money is,” was his rather puzzled reply.And why do our museums spend so much time dogging the heels of politicians? Because in their world, government is where the money is. After all, if you can’t charge people to come in, then visitors become no more than a necessary nuisance, wearing out the carpets and fingering the exhibits.

And this fact, that it is the politicians and not the public who pay the bills, has divided our museums from the public they are supposed to serve. They don’t reflect our culture, but that of the elites in power – elites who love big projects, and who find a few big budgets easier to manage than a lot of small ones.

So we see 11 million quid of Lottery cash blown on the pop music museum in Sheffield, another 9 on the visual arts centre in Cardiff – both of them closed within months. I’m sure both city councils grabbed these projects with both hands. But did anyone ask ordinary residents? Did these grand projects have any resonance with the people who actually live there?

I’ve just come back from the Isle of Arran, which has a delightful heritage museum. It’s tiny, and sits in a row of but-and-ben farm cottages. But it’s part of the fabric of the Island. Dedicated volunteers give it life: the community supports it, and it supports them, their identity and their culture.

If it had £11 million of public money I am sure it could put up a fabulous building and increase its collection fifty-fold. But it would lose its soul and purpose. Just a dead thing that had been dropped onto the landscape.

We have too many marble palaces built on the sewer of public money. And that is money that is forced out of us under pain of imprisonment. But if the public really valued what museums do, we would fund them voluntarily, through admission fees and donations. And to make us do that, museums would have to engage more with us, and be more businesslike about it.

The Christmas gift catalogues have started to arrive, and it’s actually good to see many museums exploiting their unique collections in this way; I am sure it brings people to the museums, and indeed, brings museums to the people.

But we need much more. We need innovative membership schemes that charge visitors fairly, without curbing access. Maybe vouchers for deserving groups. And the treasures that museums have in store should be rented or loaned – or even sold – to public and private collections. Museums must build new streams of income on their huge assets.

So let’s rid museum boards of the snobs who think that having to earn money from the public somehow taints their purity. As every business knows, the only way to survive – and to grow – is to give your customers such a good experience that they come back for more.

Don’t we want our museums to be like that?

Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute. This article was originally broadcast on BBC Radio’s You and Yours programme.