Last week saw the opening of the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre Phase II. This impressive extension connects the much-loved Waterhouse building and Darwin Centre Phase I, and will house over 20 million specimens in 3.3km of cabinets. Like the rest of the museum, the centre will be free to access to the public.
Most of London's major museums have been free since 2001; this includes the National and Portrait Galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum. The lack of entrance fee encourages a casual, drop-in approach to the museums, especially for those living locally. This can be extremely helpful when it comes to school research projects, allowing students to get up close and personal with key artefacts, without hefty entrance fees.
Six of the top ten attractions in London are now free museums. This increase in popularity is unprecedented, and reflected in the increase of 'blockbuster' exhibitions, such as the Terracotta Army at the British Museum, a paid-for temporary exhibition which attracted the kind of ticket-buying fanaticism usually reserved only for music or theatre events.
However, is there a down side to this magnanimity? The museums are currently funded through a mixture of donations, retail, temporary exhibitions (which often do require an entrance fee), private hire and Government funding. The majority of the establishments are based in London and yet the money that funds them is taken nationwide. Is this a fair policy? Although these are national collections, are they of national benefit?