Pricing the cultural change from museums

The Birmingham Mail reported Culture chief won't rule out Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery charges in future with Councillor Martin Mullaney responding in questions at the City Council that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery could be merged into a trust with the Thinktank Science Museum.

Councillor Mullaney replied to questioning to say: “Obviously we can never say never. We are in a financial squeeze and don’t know what is around the corner. “But I do value the Museum and Art Gallery and its fine exhibitions and as far as I am concerned we are not considering charges.”

What price then for culture and the city's great civic creation of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery? I for one can sympathise with what the Birmingham Post calls Traditionalists who resent the entry fee to the revamped Science Museum which moved from Newhall Street and was renamed Thinktank and which now charged an entrance fee, Ten years of Birmingham's Millennium Point.

The move to Millennium Point, which was the largest millennium project outside London, and now fully let to Birmingham City University, Birmingham Metropolitan College, Marketing Birmingham, Sustainability West Midlands and property consultants Rider Levitt Bucknall as well as the Thinktank and IMAX has changed what people consider 'our' heritage and access to it.
Over one million people enter Millennium Point yearly with Thinktank and IMAX attracting 400,000 people in 2010. Thinktank attracts a large number of young people encouraging an interest in science but what mix of visitors has the charges led to and how far has it and the wider Millennium Point encouraged regeneration in the surrounding area.

Even considering charging to the BMAG though is controversial and threatens our status as a major cultural city hosting the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world alongside many other attractions such as the Staffordshire Hoard which are free to view. Indeed Labour councillor Ian Ward noted that he was “...delighted to hear that [Mullanney isn't considering charges] because we do have some significant exhibits which are loaned or trusted to the city on condition that the public can view them for free",

When most major museums are free to visit, such as the British, Science and Natural History Museums in London, attracting large numbers of visitors and other cultural developments nationwide emphasing the role of culture as a tool of regeneration contemplating charging an entry fee to the BMAG makes me seriously concerned as I imagine it will with many Birmingham residents.

With BMAG's plans to develop a new gallery on the development of Birmingham and with a rich diverse city whose residents should be welcomed and encouraged to visit BMAG charging an entrance fee can only be considered a backward step. While there are indeed funding pressures through council spending cuts the value of culture to regeneration and to the mental wellbeing and richness of a city cannot be undervalued.

The Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), as was, broadly defined Culture in 2004 as encompassing the visual and performing arts; audio-visual arts; architecture and design; heritage and the historic environment; museums, galleries and archives; and tourism as it relates to the above, DCMS considered regeneration as 'the positive transformation of a place – whether residential, commercial or open space –that has previously displayed symptoms of physical, social and/or economic decline.’ Culture can aid regeneration then in a crude manner by encouraging tourism to see cultural attractions. It could also add value to the place through physical transformation while providing meaningful beneficial encouragement to civic society.

Can cutting funding for cultural bodies and threatening entrance fees to attractions such as museums harm their role in regeneration then? If attracting footfall to museums to show their 'value' is defined as most important then there is a danger in the needs of 'high culture' overriding the engagement with other forms of 'culture' such as performance groups and local community activities. There is also a danger that cutting access to culture through charges reduces the opportunity for communities to shape local regeneration by preventing the promotion of their identities and with the example of BMAG recording their history.


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