Thursday 25 Oct, 2007

France, gratis

The Smithsonian in Washington does it. The British Museum in London does it. Now, France will do it, too, at least for a short time.

Free museums.

France Culture Minister Christine Albanel announced this week that 14 of France’s museums and monuments, including three museums in Paris, will be free for six months, starting January 1.

Although most of the free museums are lesser-known—the three in Paris are Guimet (Asian art), Cluny (medieval
treasures) and Arts et Metiers (scientific inventions)—the more popular Parisian museums are also getting in on the act. The Musée d’Orsay will be open for free one night a week for visitors under 25 (under 18 already are admitted free); and the Louvre—home to Mona Lisa—is already free on Fridays for young people.

(A quick aside: The Paris Traveler blog has a nice post about the Musée Rodin in Paris, which is dedicated to the amazing work of sculptor Auguste Rodin, including The Thinker.)

Free museums has been a hot topic of debate in France since French President Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned on free museums in
the run-up to his May election. According to the Associated Press,
critics ask “whether it’s merely a superficial way of addressing the
profound, decades-old question of how to democratize culture” and how “bankrupt” France can afford it.

The United States also has been debating for a while whether to begin charging a nominal fee for the always-free Smithsonian museums and National Zoo. According to its website, 23.2 million people visited the Smithsonian sites last year.

Making “culture” accessible to as many people as possible can’t be a bad thing. Several EF people, including me, were lucky enough to hear Herb Kelleher, the hugely successful and even more personable founder of Southwest Airlines, address the World Business Forum a couple of weeks ago in New York City. He related a story that a former Louisiana governor told him. The governor was pushing to spend money on a new, expensive museum, even though everybody else wanted to spend the cash on seemingly more important things. When asked why he was so committed to the museum, the governor said (presumably in a distinctive Louisiana drawl), “If you ain’t got culture, you ain’t got (crap)!”

Of course, he didn’t say “crap,” but you get the idea.