Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Museum Charges (Opposition motion) (Boyden speech)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [864/1247-50]
Editorial comments: 2045-55. MT intervened at c1247.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 1093
[column 1247]

8.45 p.m.

Mr. James Boyden (Bishop Auckland)

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) must know that there are scores of ancient monuments and similar buildings in the care of the Department of the Environment which are open entirely free and that where charges are levied, at places like Hampton Court and the Tower, it is purely for historic reasons. When I was at the Ministry of Public Building and Works it was my ambition that these, too, would ultimately be free, and certainly when I was a Minister charges were kept low as part of the contribution to persuading people to be more interested in our cultural heritage.

The Secretary of State used some extra-ordinary arguments to support her case. Take, for example, her argument about charging preventing overcrowding. That is an entirely élitist argument: those who can afford to pay will be able to see and those who cannot will be kept out. If overcrowding is a problem the answer is simple: either extend the hours or put up a notice saying “Full” .

Mrs. Thatcher

I did not mention overcrowding.

Mr. Boyden

The right hon. Lady said that one reason for putting on charges was that some of the museums and art galleries were overcrowded.

Mrs. Thatcher

With respect, I think that perhaps it was another hon. Member who mentioned that in an intervention.

Mr. Boyden

I see no reason to attribute the remark to the right hon. Lady unless I heard her say it. We shall see whether I am right when Hansard is published tomorrow.

I let that go. The right hon. Lady makes an equally extraordinary argument about charging in relation to her general philosophy. She seems proud of expenditure which the Government have made in encouraging the development of the public's attendance at art galleries and museums. In the same breath she proposes these charges which are a barrier against the very people whom her Department and Opposition Members wish to encourage to go to art galleries and museums. I have in mind those who have only a marginal interest in art. It is very difficult to encourage working people to be interested in the arts, and barriers of [column 1248]this kind interfere with the development of an educational philosophy and policy in this respect.

Let me tell the right hon. Lady about the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. I was treasurer of that museum at the time that it was going bankrupt. I had two rôles. I had to persuade the trustees to go into liquidation and to hand over the museum to the county council, and I had to persuade the Durham County Council to take over the museum.

It was my intention and that of the county council that there would be no charge for admission to the Bowes Museum. Owing to legal difficulties over the trust deed and the taking over, a small charge was levied, and continues to be levied.

The point I wish to make against the right hon. Lady is that the charge has had nothing to do with the development of interest in the museum. It is because the policy of the county council and successive curators has been to encourage people to go to the museum, by advertising, improving the displays, spending a great deal of money on the museum—a whole host of things—that the museum has been revitalised, and has in the course of years set going three other museums. The Durham Light Infantry museum in Aykley Heads, the museum at Beamish and the Schools Museum Service all spring from those early days when the county council took over the bankrupt museum.

Although there was a small charge and the figures have gone up continuously, the charge is irrelevant. The figures have gone up because of the county council's education policy and its determination to attract the very people I wanted always to go to the best museums, and still want to go to the national galleries, those who have not much interest in museums in the first place, whom one must encourage to go there. It is part of the other side of adult education. I am pleased that the Russell Report refers in paragraph 126 to the value of museums, although in rather lukewarm terms.

A major point that the Government do not seem to understand is that all museums have two major duties. One is to conserve, which is relatively easy, because all curators are trained in conservation and that is their primary aim. The [column 1249]other is to encourage a popular interest in museums, something the Soviet Union does very well. That is the most difficult task of all. The curators are often less interested in it, and need a great deal of public pressure and encouragement from the powers-that-be.

Years ago I was interested in that aspect when I was Chairman of the National Institute for Adult Education. We formed a working party on museums and adult education, which made difficult progress. The conservationists always came out on top. I shall not be surprised if the extra £1 million which the right hon. Lady hopes to have will go on conservation, on cleaning the pictures, rather than on doing what I urge, which is as important a central theme in our national museums and galleries as anything else.

The charges are a tremendous obstacle to getting that kind of interest going. The right hon. Lady will, by these pettyfogging charges, spoil the efforts which she claims, with reasonable justice, to be making to spend more Government money on the museums.

There is another reason why the time is particularly inopportune. The right hon. Lady knows that 1975 is the Council of Europe's Architectural Heritage Year. Europa Nostra and the Council of Europe are making tremendous efforts to interest the general public in the conservation of our historic towns, town centres, buildings and so on. Nothing could be more damaging to those efforts than the Government's move. It is the beginning of a slippery slope towards putting up the bars against the public in many ways. Salisbury Cathedral is now charging. I shall not be surprised if before very long the charge-minded people put barbed wire around Grasmere and charge people to look at it.

Free admission is a simple Socialist concept. We believe in the arts and many other things being social services. If they are free, that encourages a great development among the people, among children, among the very sort of people in whom one should be taking a special interest. The Government are putting back the clock for no worthwhile amount of money, resulting in the development of a petty bureaucracy at the gates of museums and damage to what should be [column 1250]a progressive movement forward of encouraging young people, old people, all those who are only faintly interested in museums and art, to come freely into our art galleries and museums. I should like to see our historic monuments under the Department of the Environment free.