New Charges at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

I avoid public loos. I especially dislike the loos in the Pavilion gardens. I don’t care how many ‘awards’ they’ve received (I wonder who gives out these things and what contractors have to do to get them). They’re dark, depressing and terribly cold. And as any woman or child will tell you, temperature matters when you have to disrobe in the lavatory.  So I try to avoid them. 

My habit, for many years, has been to use the toilets in the museum and art gallery, though I admit it’s often just been an excuse to visit the museum. I love walking unimpeded through the stone entrance into the building, up to the purring Pavilion cat that my daughter and I used to feed with coins, past Salvador Dali’s red sofa shaped like Mae West’s lips (my daughter was always convinced she’d one day be rich enough to buy it) across to the stoneware bison and the Lalique table with the heavy glass bust of Beethoven. Then it’s on to the Voysey dresser and chair and brass lamp, a stop at the yellow glazed Minton pilgrim flask then right at the plate display and I’m almost there. Whatever my previous mood, by this time I’m happy. I’m walking on air. 

I look at other people peering at the displays and it occurs to me we’re like a family pottering around a well-loved family home that we haven’t visited for a while – along with visitors who haven’t been there before. I must admit I feel pride and a bit proprietorial. It occurs to me that that these are all our things, given, bought and paid for by previous citizens or by us. Sometimes I go upstairs and have coffee and a scone and read the paper and survey my, or rather our, domain.

As a child in South Africa, I visited the Durban library and museum each Saturday. I was too short to see over the library desk – and too young to understand why the only people there were white – but even then I had the same feeling of belonging and civic pride. The Victorian paintings were awful, but I loved the stuffed animals and birds, the lion and hyena, even an elephant and a hippo – and the model of a dodo bird, with a real dodo egg beside it. 

When I first came to this country in 1972, I lived in London and was terribly lonely and had very little money. Every weekend I’d leave my bedsit and visit the national gallery and the museums. They were all free and I’d mix with the people and look for hours at the portraits, especially the Rembrandts and feel just a bit less lonely.

In 1975, I came to Sussex University as a student. One of the first things I did was to visit Brighton’s museum and art gallery and make the acquaintance of its pictures and artefacts. Then my parents settled here and they too came to love the displays.

All this being the case, imagine my distress when, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the museum, but was turned away. I strode in confidently, only to be stopped at a desk by several officials who told me the facility was no longer free to tourists – and that if I wanted to visit I needed to show proof of residence. A library card was not sufficient.

On that occasion, I rummaged in my bag and I was lucky enough to find a letter from my bank. My address was checked and entered on a computer (not a swift process) and I was allowed in, wearing a purple badge. In some distress, I left the museum through the Corn Exchange entrance.

Two days later, in a dream, I walked in again, only to be stopped again. I said “I’m on your computer”, but that cut no ice. I still had to show my letter. I said “This is an awful hullabaloo to go to the loo. Can’t I just go in?” Could I heck. “When was this decided?” I asked “Was there any consultation?”. “Oh yes,” one replied, while another said at the same time “I think they did try to keep it quiet”. Too true, they did – just before an election.

Two days later I visited again, but this time, I remembered. I went in through the Corn Exchange entrance where (note well) there are no barriers. I looked at the displays and visited the loo at my leisure, noticing with sadness how many people wore badges indicating they had had to pay. I somehow found it hard to meet their gaze. 

As I left by the main entrance, officials insisted on yet again checking my bank letter against their computer, presumably to make sure it wasn’t a fake address. As I walked out into the sunshine, past the sad little queue of people wanting to go in, I did not feel proud of my city.
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6 Responses

  1. Museums should be free. Simple.
    Couldn’t agree more with your sentiment. It’s a outrage.

    • With cuts to the Budget of £100 million in the next four years, I reckon that this is is but the first of many things that will be directly felt by the public; until now, many cuts have been behind the scenes as far as many are concerned (and no less painful for those concerned) but now it’s going to be raw stuff. The way in which branch libraries are staffed will be a hot point.

  2. I’m stunned. I had absolutely no idea this had been done. It costs me about £8 to taxi to the Museum area and I should have been enraged if I turned up only to be told pay or leave. Rare to just happen to have proof of residence lurking in the bag.

    What is the charge? Humiliating process too. Not acceptable.

  3. I just looked at the BHCC Consultations Portal. There was no consultation listed there….most odd.

    • I spoke to a councillor about this the day. It seems it was done under the radar.

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