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The scheme, which is available to museums and galleries that provide free access to the public, is reopening to widen access to arts and culture.

Image of Tate Modern
Tate is among the institutions already benefiting from the scheme


Museums and galleries are being urged to sign up to a VAT refund scheme as part of government plans to widen access to arts and culture by expanding free entry to collections.

Announced by Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, the DCMS scheme will be open to new applications in the autumn.

The scheme, which has been running since 2001, is for any museum or gallery that provides free access to the public for at least 30 hours a week. It last accepted new applicants in 2018/19.


Institutions eligible for the scheme are entitled to a refund on VAT incurred on goods and services purchased in order to facilitate free admission.

Lord Parkinson said that while the UK’s museums and galleries offer “a huge range of free exhibitions”, there is scope to expand this further.

“We want to see even more museums offering free entry, and to support organisations which are providing great opportunities for the public to enjoy.

“I encourage cultural institutions across the UK to apply for the VAT Refund Scheme so they can make sure people of all backgrounds get to experience great arts and culture for free.”

DCMS estimates that, based on HMRC VAT returns and assessments, between 2001 and June 2022 up to £1 billion of VAT refunds were issued to museums and galleries.


As well having to be open to the public free of charge, other criteria that institutions have to meet include: free entry without prior arrangement; holding collections in a purpose-built building; and displaying details of free entry and opening hours on the venue’s website.

There is no cap on the number of institutions that can be accepted on to the scheme in this latest application round, as long as they meet the criteria.

More than 90 bodies across the UK are presently signed up to the scheme, with the number of sites these operate standing at 159.

High-profile organisations that benefit from the VAT refund include Tate, the Science Museum group, National Galleries of Scotland, the National Museum of Wales, and University of Cambridge.

Culture Perth and Kinross Ltd, which runs venues including Perth Museum and Art Gallery, joined the scheme in 2017.

CEO Helen Smout said the refund scheme has been of “enormous benefit” to organisation and has “helped us sustain a programme of free-to-access exhibitions”.

“Without the support this scheme provides for museums our programmes would not be as rich, ambitious or engaging and our future would be bleaker.”

'Invaluable' for small museums

The scheme is also used by a significant number of small museums and other cultural organisations.

Among these are Glasgow Women’s Library, The People’s History Museum in Manchester, Falkirk’s Callendar House, and the Peter Scott Gallery in Lancaster.

The volunteer-run Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, joined the scheme in 2013.

Chair of Trustees Sharon Nolan said the museum has “benefited greatly” through VAT refunds. 

She said the museum saved VAT on building work and supplies when it was renovating an old Moravian Church in order to create a new storage and events space.

“The scheme is invaluable to small, volunteer-run museums like ourselves. It enables us to to retain our free-entry status, and to be ambitious and take on new projects.”

Cost-of-living crisis

The Museums Association has welcomed the reopening of the scheme, describing it as “hugely valuable to many museums offering free entry in the past 20 years”.

MA Policy Manager Alistair Brown told ArtsProfessional that inviting new applications “is particularly timely given the financial strains caused by the cost-of-living crisis. I’d really encourage museums to consider applying”.

He added: “Free access to museums is something that is needed now more than ever. 

“From our point of view, we support such efforts and believe that free entry in many museums helps to provide access to visitors from all backgrounds.”