Should museums charge for enquiries?

Jan Freedman, 13.08.2014
Enquiries can be time-consuming and divert staff from other activities
As a museum curator I get a huge variety of enquiries from members of the public. My most popular is the meteorite enquiry. In seven years, I have only ever seen one real meteorite (99% of the time the meteorite is unquestionably waste from smelt works).

The most interesting enquiry I’ve had so far was about a leopard tooth, subsequently donated to the museum. I have had plenty of funny enquiries, including a person who saw faces in her “crystals” (there were no faces, nor were there crystals, just pebbles picked up from the road).

The funniest has to be an email sent into me for a bird identification: no photograph, just a wonderful description of the bird: “It had black feathers. As it flew, it made a ‘ka ka karr kar’ noise. It never flew higher than four metres above the ground.” Pretty useful description, thanks.

Recently, due to short staff, I helped cover our museum reception desk for an hour over lunch. Some staff members were talking to a couple who had brought in a painting.

When the art curator went off to get some more information, one of them came over to me on the reception desk, peered sheepishly at a few leaflets on the desk, leaned over and asked: “Do you know of any auction houses in Plymouth?”

I apologised, and shook my head. As professionals we all follow the code of ethics, and encourage appreciation of the objects people have rather than any potential financial value. We can give details of dealers or auction houses, but if people are thinking of getting rid of an object, I prefer to gently suggest donating it to the museum.

It made me wonder though, should we have charged them for their enquiry?

A small number of other museum curators I asked about this issue said that, although they themselves were against it, their museum was planning on introducing a charge for public enquiries.

There are a few reasons why doing so makes sense. As public funding diminishes, there is a pressure on museums to generate income to keep the services they provide running.

Another reason is time. Curators do everything from writing exhibitions to developing safe working procedures for radioactive collections. Enquiries are fairly ad hoc, can take a reasonable amount of time, and may involve some research.

But I think these reasons are squished by the very essence of what a museum is about: to engage, inspire and educate people using our incredible collections.

And talking to people provides an excellent opportunity for specimen donations to the museum. One eight year old girl offered a beautiful fossil she found to the museum (with permission from her parents). People begin to feel ownership of the collections, because it is something they have donated and it now belongs in the museum.

Charging for an enquiry doesn’t really welcome people to bring things in. It might reduce the meteorite enquiries, but what’s wrong with spending four minutes talking to someone about how slag is formed from ancient smelt works?

And adding a charge often costs more in administration and staff time than the actual charge.

Enquiries are a chance to talk to people passionately about what they have brought in to be identified, and make links to our collections. If we start to put a fee on this, we will be discouraging people from using the museum, and stunting people’s natural curiosity.

Jan Freedman is the curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This piece is an edited version of an original article on his blog, FromShanklin.

Comments

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Chris Wood
MA Member
28.08.2014, 13:20
I agree - answering enquiries is surely what a museum engaged with its community does. Nicely written piece too!

I also agree with Natasha that the option of proposing to charge for time in the case of irksome enquiries is sensible, but it should be a case of 'We may have to charge for enquiries that take up unreasonable staff time', rather than a blanket statement that the time is chargeable (even if the charge is rarely made), as that puts people off in the first place.
14.08.2014, 16:59
I totally agree and think that charging for enquiries is against the educational value and role that museums play in their communities and wider afield.

However, to play devil's advocate, you could consider implementing a charge for 'repeat customers' (I'm wording that nicely!) or for overly lengthy requests that take a long time to complete. This is something that many libraries do - the first 30mins is free and then there is a charge but in my experiece in NZ, the charge is rarely applied. Having it there though does mean that you can use your discretion and choose on the odd occasions to apply it.
13.08.2014, 16:34
As an Irish museum curator my two favourite enquiries:

From California: "Please send me information on Isaac C Foster as he came from Ireland."

From an American lady who had just spent an hour and a half in our museum housed in an 18th century former prison a few hundred yards from the traditional burial place of St Patrick. "And how long was St Patrick in jail here?"

PS Of course we shouldn't charge for enquiries.
Anonymous
MA Member
13.08.2014, 14:09
As a curator/collections officer in a museum that is a registered charity, I personally feel we should be allowed to ask if the case in point requires. For example, some enquiries can be someone popping in asking advice on how to store their item (brilliant! I always love it when people care for their items as much as we do) but others are lengthy searches for information on relatives, their careers etc. that we can find in our archives. Of course in the case of the latter we always invite the enquirer to come and use the facilities themselves on the one day a week we have dedicated staff in the stores (we do not charge for this). Sometimes however this isn't possible so we do do the research on their behalf.

Rather than charge for these services (as I agree this can be restricting and also just because it is part of our jobs as individuals but also as a sector) we say they can make a donation if they are able, but no worries if you can’t. Usually, if the enquiry is a big one they will offer this without being asked but if not 7 times out of 10 this prompts people to donate. I could write a whole essay on this topic but to cut a long story short I don’t think there is any harm/it is not unethical to charge for enquiries if it done responsibly. We are in a time when we need to make money as museums to survive and by suggesting those that can to contribute to the organisation as a whole monetarily for a service well done, well that’s just common sense (including big businesses etc. that might want images or our knowledge). Suggesting a donation means those who can will, but also it allows those who can’t to also use our facilities without embarrassment which is absolutely what we as museum folk should aim for.