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'Make German museums free to bring them to life'

Published: 16 Oct 2012 10:24 GMT+02:00

People who want to get from London’s University Library to Covent Garden and want to get out of the rain, or perhaps are in a hurry, take a route through the British Museum. You are greeted by a guard on the way in, pass through the Gallery of Living and Dying in the Great Court, go around the old Reading Room and walk out the other side. You don’t have to hand in your umbrellas – and you certainly don’t pay entry.

And who knows where a person’s curiosity might take them once they enter the world’s oldest museum? They could look into the Islam gallery, or the gallery of the cafe devoted to Coptic Christianity – a route which leads through hordes of excited schoolchildren as this is also the way to the much loved mummy section.

What a contrast to Berlin’s Museum Island. Once one has got through the transaction at the pay desk and arrived in the Bode Museum, the squeak of shoes is the only sound – that or a reprimand for wandering between the sculptures with a coat hung over an arm. The feeling is of being an invader – one wishes that it was a little like in London where the museums are filled with life, curiosity, business and joy.

There are 13 British national museums, nine in London, as well as countless private museums such as the Saatchi Gallery, the University Museums in Oxford and Cambridge or the city museums of the Victorian industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool, which invite people in for free – and nearly all without the German institution of a closed day each week.

Free museums play a large part in people’s lives

The result is that London museums play a big role in the lives of the people. Not only do more people go to museums, they go more often, in a more relaxed manner, and also just for 20 or 30 minutes. “Even the women are more elegant,” said Martin Roth, the new German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He can hardly believe his luck to be in charge of the super-cool museum which once advertised with a slogan saying it was a cafe with a nice museum attached.

“How I fought in Dresden to reduce the barriers. German museums fear for their intellectuality and scientific reputation, are scared of losing their identity.” Roth tripled visitor numbers in Dresden, but failed in his fight against the weekly closed day. But, he said, German museums envy their British colleagues for their style and elegance.

No wonder. The free entrance is the basis of a museum culture which plays a central role in London’s position as a global capital city, centre for art and the most popular tourist destination in the world.

What is decisive is how these museums contribute to London’s civilised, relaxed urbanity. Ladies meet for tea at the world’s oldest museum restaurant at the V&A, and then take a stroll through the Renaissance gallery. On late opening Thursdays, disco music fills the halls and one can stand next to Giambologna’s Samson, a glass of champagne in hand. In the National Gallery civil servants from Whitehall take a quick look at their favourite painting during their lunch break. And where better to meet for a rendezvous than in the pulsating Tate Modern?

Part of the public space

Museums are part of the public space, like shopping centres and parks, but they expand them, and the public consciousness with their treasures, their history, their glamour, their celebration of humanity. Just as the department store of the 19th century democratised consumerism, the modern museum does the same for knowledge, education and beauty. For the British, that is today so self-explanatory that it is not questioned even in times of great budgetary pressure.

According to specialist magazine Art Newspaper, six of the world’s 20 most visited museums in 2011 were in London. Germany’s most visited museum, the Dresden Residenzschloss, was at number 29 – and Berlin’s New Museum was at 38, with 1.14 million visitors.

The Pergamon Museum, which sees itself as a world-class museum, has something over a million visitors. This is fewer than the Ashmolean in Oxford, population 154,000. Free entry does not pull in the unwashed masses who step on the toes of the elite, as some German museum directors fear. Rather museums become part of civil society.

Michael Eissenhauer, general director of the Berlin State Museums, says that a third of the city’s visitors already enjoy free entry – including all those under 18 – and that the hurdle to free entry is kept as low as possible. But at the same time he says, “We live from tax money and therefore take our responsibility seriously to contribute something to the finances from our own income.”

Collections belong to the nation, not the state

In England the same argument is used the other way around. During the fight against entry fees under Margaret Thatcher, the argument which won was that it was absurd to demand money to see works which in any case belonged to the visitors.

The art of museums belongs to the people – they are bought, cared for and exhibited with tax money. Often they are gifts to the nation – not to government bureaucracy or the state.

The British, unlike the Germans, draw a clear difference between nation and state, people and government apparatus. Thus, the British museums belong to society, but the German ones to ministerial bureaucracies.

A board of trustees is placed between the government - as the most important source of funding - and museum directors. Ministers appoint the trustees on recommendation, but remain at arm’s length from decisions – in contrast to Germany, where Culture Minister of State Bernd Neumann is chairman of the Trust Board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Education, participation, integration

Sean Rainbird, director of the Stuttgart National Gallery, concluded this spring that the model of a hierarchical relationship between a superior authority and subordinate institute does not work. In Stuttgart he secured three sponsors to fund free entry for the State Gallery for half a year – and visitor numbers rose by 250 percent. But there was not enough time to establish a new museum culture and support from above was missing.

For Roth the advantages of free entry are undeniable. “Education, participation, integration,” are the core responsibilities of museums, and are promoted by free entry, he said.

The museum expert said free entry was entirely feasible for the big German museums. A two-year test phase would be easy to execute – one would only have to secure the museums against financial risk.

“But the initiative must come from the ministers,” he said.

Why? Perhaps Berliners should stop only talking about museum projects, architecture plans and switching of collections from one place to another, and instead demand more museums in their lives – and more life in their museums.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

12:37 October 16, 2012 by catjones
.........in London where the museums are filled with life, curiosity, business and joy.

envy their British colleagues their style and elegance.

Even the women are more elegant,

London¦#39;s civilised, relaxed urbanity...........All this just from free museum entry?

Sounds like, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
13:00 October 16, 2012 by wood artist
Although it's not strictly related to an admission charge...or lack thereof...I must admit that the museums in Germany are sometimes a real challenge. I realize that they are under different management, but some are downright unfriendly to visitors.

I was chastised in the Märkisches Museum for taking pictures. Turns out that despite the fact that I asked, nobody said I needed a special additional pass to take pictures.

It's okay to take pictures in the Deutsches History Museum, but you aren't allowed a flash. Nowhere does it say that, but the staff will chew you out quickly for not knowing.

The Jewish Museum has it's own issues, and it's not just the modern building. The lifts are impossible to locate...and the staff is worse than useless if you ask. Also, locating a restroom is a complete disaster...they are there, just not marked at all. You're not allowed to flash, but the lighting is so dim pictures are nearly impossible...and the gift shop has everything imaginable...including kosher gummie bears...but not a single book on the exhibits in the museum, so...you can't even buy something with pictures. Oddly, the museum apparently isn't aware of the Rosenstrasse rebellion, which seems like it should be a significant moment in Berlin's jewish history. The staff had never heard of it either. SIGH!

There are, however, some good ones. Buchenwald does a wonderful job on just about every measure....great layout, excellent displays, helpful staff, and an overall wonderful presentation.

wa
14:12 October 16, 2012 by zeddriver
@WA

I agree. When I went to Paris. The Louvre had no issues with photography at all. I went to the Roman museum next to Koln Cathedral. I asked if I should check in my dslr camera. Was told by staff that it was fine to take it inside. I was than promptly scolded for taking a photo of a stone statue. I had the ISO turned up and was not using a flash. There does not seem to be any sort of standard. I understand that paintings should not be subjected to flash lighting. But a bloody marble statue?

Seems like when Germans that are charged with public relations first arise in the morning. Their first task is torture themselves with a taser. So as to set the mood for the rest of the day with the public they are to serve.

The Germans are masters of engineering and have boundless technical expertise and I quite like them. But there seems to be no German word for or concept of service with a smile.
14:37 October 16, 2012 by hberg
Great point by the writer.

I live outside Washington, DC and have been to the Smithsonian Museums numerous times. I doubt I would have done so if I had to pay a fee every time I went. Raining outside? Go to a museum. Too hot and humid outside? Go to a museum. New exhibit but only an hour before closing? Go to the museum anyways.

I've been to Berlin twice and failed to go to any of their major museums, mostly because of poor planning, but also because of the fees. Why pay an entrance fee when there's only an hour left before closing? That's not a problem with museums in London and DC.
15:56 October 16, 2012 by Bulldawg82
Having the museums fee-free is nice. But nothing is free. We all pay somehow. This would manifest itself in higher taxes (locally or federally).
17:32 October 16, 2012 by ChrisRea
@ Englishted

The British model sounds nice as described in this article. Can you confirm that it is really like that? Is the system not abused? Thanks.
19:01 October 16, 2012 by Stuffer
Yes, it is as good as it sounds, and it's brilliant! My kids know every inch of Bristol museum. We donate every time we go in, they have a thriving cafe, a shop selling books, prints, toys, it's a busy, lively place to be.

Funding by the means mentioned above, plus events and sponsorship, as well as tax. It is run by the local Council, who do a brilliant job (not often I say that about our local council!)
19:50 October 16, 2012 by Englishted
@ ChrisRea,

Yes it genuinely is ,there are ones in my home town too and they are child friendly and wheelchair access is always available.

Some German museums are O.K. the ones opened to commemorate the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest are really good , but wheelchair access is a nightmare all over Germany ,even down to putting cobbled streets in town centres so you can't wheel yourself or be comfortable being pushed .

But Chris don't just take my word for it go over, the natives are very friendly and the food is not as bad as people believe.
00:19 October 17, 2012 by vonSchwerin
There is one nominal solution, at least for Berliners: buy a Jahreskarte (something like a "museum membership" in America). No, it's not free. In fact, it can be a bit expensive. But then you get in to all the museums just by flashing your card, not extra tickets, no lines.

But I will agree that museum staff members can often be unfriendly. At most Berlin/Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz museums, I wave my card, and the guard shows me in. But occasionally, I get some bureaucratic type who insists that I show him my ID so he can match the name and signature on my ID with the name and signature on my museum card.

@wood artist

There used to be catalogue of the Jewish Museum's permanent exhibition. It's called "Zwei Jahrtausende deutsch-jüdische Geschichte. Geschichten einer Ausstellung". I bought it at the Museum giftshop. Perhaps it is no longer available, but it certainly use to be.
10:36 October 17, 2012 by William Thirteen
indeed, in Berlin the Jahreskarte is the way to go.
21:26 October 17, 2012 by wood artist
@vonSchwerin

I've often purchased a book rather than take my own pictures, because the pictures therein are usually better. Often my pictures are of the verbiage so I can re-read things later, of even check my translating skills (rather poor). I think I photographed darn near every page a the Bendler Block. At the Jewish museum I looked all around the shop but found nothing. Then I asked, and they pointed me to two books about the architect and the building, but they only included incidental things about the displays. I found that really odd, and asked further. The woman said no one had ever asked for such a thing, and clearly found the question "seltsam." Whatever?

wa
09:11 October 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
Maybe the thing to do is something that will bring Germans to life. They never have been the most joyous of people anyway.
17:46 October 19, 2012 by Kennneth Ingle
In some ways I could agree with Berlin fuer alles when he wrote; Maybe the thing to do is something that will bring Germans to life. They never have been the most joyous of people anyway.

They certainly take their sense of humour far too seriously! Many enjoying life only between the 11th of November and Ash Wednesday. But on the other hand we can laugh at many things which seem funny to us, but are terrible for the German taxpayer. Just one example would be the new Berlin airport.

Nevertheless, no museums are free, any more than are many public services or studying at the University, all have to be paid for by somebody. I wonder how many of us have been annoyed for being forced to pay for things we do not want or have reason to use. Millions of Euros have been wasted in Bielefeld to provide Bicycle ways which are hardly utilised and in most cases rejected by cyclists, because they are too narrow and next to the car traffic. Car parks, on the other hand, are seldom and few in this town, but again millions of Euros have been spent to turn one into an area for skateboarding. Free for the skaters, but expensive for everybody else.

Certainly the Germans are not the most joyous of people, but when one has a good look at what their leaders keep doing, it is not really a great surprise. Let the Museums charge those who use them, not the general public.
17:54 October 20, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@ Kenneth Ingle.

Well written and a lot of valid points depending on one's viewpoint. It would be great if the government adopted your approach to TV tax and not tax people unless they actually do have a TV and watch German State TV. Now that would be a beginning to softening the bad opinion us ex-pats have of German government.
11:29 October 24, 2012 by nish4u
I agree that the musuems in Germany should be free to public...but hey..take the story other way, UK can learn from the German universities and make education affordable if not free. i.e. not charge 10-15K pound for tuition fees!!
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