Museums shouldn't let this chance slip by

Museums here will soon have the chance to instill cultural pride when they make entry free for all Singaporeans and PRs from May. Above, an exhibition of the late Reverend Song Nian's works at the Asian Civilisations Museum last year.

SINGAPORE - The story of charging for museum admission in Singapore is a curious one that fights the tide of what is happening in many other countries.

In the cultural capitals of the world, free entry to museums such as the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has long been a given. Their struggle is against opponents who question the economics of the policy in the light of tightening government budgets.

Here, it has been the reverse. The six museums and two heritage institutions run by the National Heritage Board have always charged entry fees. In recent years, however, the Government has gradually revised its admission policy.

In 2010, children and students who are Singaporeans or permanent residents (PRs), as well as national servicemen, were granted free admission.

Last Friday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong announced in Parliament that museum entry fees would be scrapped for all Singaporeans and PRs from May 18 to increase the accessibility of heritage institutions.

The cost of implementing free museum admission is not cheap; a portion of the museums' $2 million annual revenue from entry fees will be lost. That amount though is a fraction of the annual operating expenditure - around $151 million for the last financial year.

Still, profit-making has never been an incentive or priority for the museums. Their work has been to increase public contact with art and culture, and it is far from done by simply granting free access.

In fact, the true test begins right after museums open their doors to all Singaporeans and PRs for free in May, with the months immediately after being especially crucial.

Those who have never visited a national museum or heritage institution - about four in five Singaporeans according to Mr Wong's speech in Parliament - might venture into one after May, when admission is free, out of curiosity.

But if they are not impressed by the encounter, they might walk away for good, believing that they never missed anything or that the Government's gesture is a populist move to spread its message of strengthening community ties through culture.

And this is a tough crowd to win over because they are characteristically apathetic about the arts. In the latest biennial national population survey on the arts conducted in 2011, the majority, or 64 per cent, of more than 2,000 respondents said they were "neutral", "not interested" or "not at all interested" in the arts.

Museums must succeed, and quickly, in persuading this group of potential audience that the change in admission policy is more than a bureaucratic triumph; it is a new-found freedom precious to the individual that should be cherished and frequently exercised.

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