Tom Watson writes:
I don’t often celebrate anniversaries but there is one date that makes me feel particularly proud about the achievements of the last Labour government.
Fifteen years ago today, National Museums around the country opened their doors and welcomed visitors in free of charge.
On that day, people in London, Manchester, York and many more places could visit the Victoria and Albert, the Museum of Science and Industry and the National Railway Museum without paying a penny.
It was one of Labour’s boldest initiatives and one of its most enduring legacies.
The effect of the policy was transformative.
In the fifteen years since that December day, visitor numbers at the museums that once charged for entry have rocketed by over 200% – from 7 million in 2001 to nearly 22 million in 2016.
Some of the museums – like the Royal Armouries in London, Leeds and Hampshire – have seen visitor numbers rise by over 700%, and Liverpool’s National Museums have seen a rise of over 300%.
The aim behind the policy was simple; to give people as much access as they wanted to the extraordinary artefacts and exhibits these museums hold.
Because curiosity shouldn’t come at a price.
As the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith wrote last year, museums “are the places where, as a society, a community, a nation, we store our history, our memories, our knowledge, our science, the things of beauty we have created, the special objects we want to hand down from generation to generation.”
Almost a generation later, teenagers who visited museums on school trips in 2001 might now be taking their own children to see the same things they saw when they were young.
The people who are going to museums come from diverse backgrounds, with a greater number of people from Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic communities visiting than ever before.
The same is true of young people and people from poorer backgrounds.
But we need to do more.
Arts and culture must be for the many not the few.
Too often creative success seems class bound, with jobs in the arts and cultural institutions overwhelmingly going to the most advantaged social groups and too many opportunities based in London and a few other big cities.
The situation is getting worse not better because of a double whammy of cuts to the arts by the Tory government and the loss of funds because of Brexit on the other.
The UK could lose access to many millions of pounds of funding once we leave the EU because we are unlikely to be able to apply for the arts grants its makes available to members.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with Labour Councils from all over the country to form a Communities for Culture taskforce.
It will share and develop innovative ideas and policies that we hope will make it possible for more people to access arts and culture, despite the cuts.
The free museums policy has be in place for 15 years – and the truth is the Tories daren’t touch it.
That’s an enduring legacy Labour should be proud of.
These museums belong to us. They celebrate and showcase our nation’s history, heritage and ideas.
And it’s Labour that’s thinking creatively about how we open it up to everyone, no matter who or where they are.
There should be no class ceiling on the arts.