Museums aren’t a modern phenomenon. It might come as a surprise to learn that the first museum is believed to have been established by a Babylonian princess, Ennigaldi around 530BC. The remains of the museum – with artefacts neatly laid out and labelled – was discovered by the archaeologist, Leonard Woolley in 1925. No one is sure who was entitled to visit the museum. It’s certainly possible that its visitors were invited members of the aristocracy and ruling classes. This is very reminiscent of the first European museums which opened from the 17th century (the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) up to the early 19th century (the Museo del Prado).
Although all of these major museums boost that they allowed free access to the general public, it’s questionable about how many members of the working classes visited them considering their working hours.
It was only in the late 19th century that efforts were made to actively encourage more working-class people to visit UK’s museums by organising talks and guided tours. This was part of a general social and political policy which argued that workers would only stop their reliance on ‘demon drink’ if they were exposed to culture. Without changes to their working conditions, this policy was only of limited success.
The 20th century saw the greatest change in how museums were viewed and promoted to the working classes. This was fuelled by two major changes: the gradual increase in the age of compulsory education from 12 to 16 and the establishment of the welfare state. By the 1960s, the emphasis was on lifelong learning and a flexible education
(as epitomised by the Open University from 1969). There was also a major change in the type of exhibits on show in the latter part of the 20th century with many exhibitions devoted to the lives of ordinary people rather than key political figures.
As a result of these changes, it might be expected that more working-class people would now be visiting UK museums as they have become more accessible. However, the last research (carried out by the Warren Commission) found that 87% of visitors to British museums tended to come from the country’s higher social groups and didn’t reflect the country’s demographics.
The key to encouraging working-class visitors starts in school with regular trips. One of the reasons why this isn’t happening has been the gradual disappearance of the arts from the school curriculum in favour of more ‘relevant’ subjects.
One of the recommendations of the Warren Commission was the establishment of a free digital ‘cultural library’ easily accessible from the home and that organisations receiving public funding should be able to prove they were looking for ways to attract visitors from a variety of socio-economic groups.
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are available with a streamlined application procedure. However, this money doesn’t have to be spent on family outings since so many of the UK’s museums are still completely free.