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Constricting budgets threaten Britain's famed free museums.
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LONDON — Free is good. We all know that.
Think how much you are paying to read GlobalPost. Free is best when it comes to learning and culture. Virtually everything on earth can be commodified amd assigned a monetary value. But in doing so, some things — like culture — actually lose their worth.
When it comes to culture, Britain leads the world in free stuff. Given how expensive life is in this country, that's a good deal. Despite the slow decline in the value of the pound over the last two years, tourists still pay obscene amounts for hotel rooms that range from the grand to the generally very poor.
Getting around on public transportation is an expensive proposition. Restaurants are dramatically improved over what they were twenty years ago — and they have the prices to prove it.
But when a visitor goes to a museum, he or she walks in for free. Whether looking at the treasures of the ancient world at the British Museum, the dinosaur skeletons or butterflies at the Natural History Museum, the Turners at the Tate or the Leonardo's at the National Gallery — all are free.
But the main beneficiaries of the open access to museums aren't overseas visitors on a budget. They are those of us who live here. For a Londoner (or a Liverpudlian or a Mancunian or a Glaswegian) the riches of Britain's national museums aren't a special treat or a once in a lifetime experience; they are part of daily life in the city.
If you're walking near London's National Gallery and a rain shower comes up (as it does frequently), you can duck inside and pick a painting — any painting — and just take a few minutes to look and let it work on you. No need to gorge yourself on all the museum highlights. Just one picture to contemplate, maybe help you forget the stress of the world, fill you with awe and then when the shower passes, you're on your way.
On the weekend, you can take the kids to the Natural History Museum for exactly zero money — although if they are young, you have to get them past the Museum shop without them going into meltdown when you refuse to buy them every dinosaur toy in the store.
Compare this to the museum experience in America. Last spring I was stranded in New York by the Icelandic volcano. I went down to the Museum of Modern Art in the same spirit of killing time with culture that I have when I walk into the Tate or the British Museum.
It was 20 bucks to get in! At prices like that you have to have a "BIG" experience. It's very hard to get inside the work when you feel like you have to love it or you've wasted money.
I gave the museum a pass. It's a great collection but I've seen it many times back when I lived in New York and the entry fee was more humane. And maybe I've been a little spoiled by living in the land of the free. What is inside MoMA is almost as precious as oxygen to civilized life ... and it should be priced accordingly.
Anyway, there is a real worry here in Britain that the Age of Free may lose out to the Age of Austerity. Britain's museum's are primarily funded by the government and the new "Con-Dem'd" coalition government is taking a chainsaw to spending in the hope of reducing the budget deficit.
Britain's culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has indicated his department might have to cut 40 percent of its budget over the next four years. The arts establishment is already waging a public relations blitz to protect itself. Open letters signed by the biggest wigs in the culture business are appearing in newspapers. They remind readers that for every pound the government puts into culture, two pounds of revenue is generated.
So far the government is holding the line on free admission to museums.
Two decades ago, when Margaret Thatcher was in charge, arts budgets were slashed and some museums began charging for entry. The public was angered and quite a few of Thatcher's own Conservative MPs thought it was a philistine move. Museum entry fees became one more item on the charge sheet when Mrs. T was forced out of office by her own party.
But free means other aspects of Britain's arts budget are under threat. This week, Culture Secretary Hunt announced the closure of the U.K. Film Council — set up to help fund British films for the global market. Seventy plus jobs will go.
Other administrative bodies in the world of culture are expected to disappear as well. There is still no guarantee that in the near future, as the budget squeeze continues, the pledge to keep museum's free will be maintained. Then it will be up to the Museum's themselves to decide what to do.
"The trustees are committed to keeping entrance free," a spokesman for the Tate Museum told me recently but added this caveat. "We will have to see the details in the [government's] autumn spending review."
What museum administrators fear most is that maintaining free entry will end up being balanced against cuts in the number of staff. Two years from now it is impossible to say how they will make that choice.
Some other really excellent free stuff in London
The great museums are on every tourist's checklist. Here are some lesser known ones that are worth a visit:
Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch
After a free hour wandering around the museums, you can turn left on Shoreditch High Street, walk 50 yards and have lunch at one of the half dozen excellent Vietnamese restaurants that have opened in the last 15 years. They are not free but about as close to it as restaurants get in this city. Viet Hoa and Song Que are the best.
Gagosian Gallery near King's Cross
This is the dealer's exhibition space as opposed to his sales gallery near Bond Street.
Formerly housed in the round reading room at the British Museum, the massive new building, next to St. Pancras Station, is now the permanent home of the manuscripts' room with its original copies of everything from Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible to Shakespeare's First Folio and lyrics scrawled by Paul McCartney. There is also a temporary exhibition hall now home to an amazing display of maps.
London's daily fun fair centered around Royal Festival Hall on the banks of the Thames. Free music, dance and theater events all the time plus free Wi-Fi access so you can e-mail all your friends and family and tell them what a cool time you're having without spending much money.
Other free Wi-Fi spots can be found here.