France tries experiment: free museums

( AP ) - A number of French museums will temporarily stop charging entrance fees as an experiment: If museums are free, will they draw a wider, more varied audience?

Starting Jan. 1, 14 French museums and monuments will open to visitors free of charge for six months, Culture Minister Christine Albanel said Tuesday.

Three of the museums are in Paris - Guimet, home to Asian art; Cluny, which features medieval treasures; and Arts et Metiers, dedicated to scientific inventions. Their full-price tickets range from around $9 to $11.

President Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned for free museums before his May election, and France's culture world has since debated the idea, with critics asking whether it's merely a superficial way of addressing the question of how to democratize culture.

Albanel, who has been skeptical in the past about free museums, said officials would study the experiment's results and decide how to proceed.

"The main question is simply how to inspire desire - desire for artistic experiences and culture - in people who are not familiar with these places," said Albanel, who once oversaw the palace at Versailles. "We'll see if free entry is the right response."The measure only applies to museums' permanent collections, and visitors will still have to pay for temporary exhibits.

As part of the experiment, a few museums including Orsay in Paris, home to Impressionist masterpieces, will open for free one evening a week to young people between the ages of 18- 25. A full-price Orsay ticket costs nearly $11. The Louvre, which charges nearly $13 for a full-price ticket, already offers free entrance to young people on Friday nights.

France is testing a path already taken by several other European countries, including Britain, which scrapped entrance fees for many museums starting in 2001. In the five years that followed, nearly 30 million more people visited museums, former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has said.

In the United States, the Smithsonian Institution museums and national zoo in Washington are also free of charge. According to the Smithsonian Web site, there were 23.2 million visitors to the museums last year.

Francoise Benhamou, a Sorbonne economics professor who studies the financing of culture, is skeptical of the French plan. She points out that many French museum-goers already get in for free because of open-house days and other offers, and she said those who would benefit from the free museums are foreign tourists who don't pay taxes.

At the Louvre, for example, two-thirds of visitors are foreigners.

"Free museums would in large part benefit tourists who have the means to pay," Benhamou said.

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