Is an admission charge really a barrier to entry?

A report by the Association of Independent Museums aims to help institutions make evidence-based decisions on fees. Geraldine Kendall Adams assesses its conclusions
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Geraldine Kendall Adams

To charge or not to charge? It’s been a contentious question for museums in the UK for years, but the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) hopes a new report, Evaluating the Evidence: the Impact of Charging or Not for Admissions on Museums, will allow the sector to move the debate forward and make pragmatic, evidenced-based decisions on entry policies.

The UK-wide research, which was funded by Arts Council England and the Museums, Archives and Libraries Division Wales, and conducted by the consultancy DC Research, attracted 311 responses from a broad range of institutions. (Responses from national museums were excluded because of their free-admission policies.)

Almost 70% of responses originated from the independent sector (AIM says that, although it appears weighted in favour of independents, this figure also encompasses other museum types and is generally proportionate to the make-up of the sector) while just over 18% of responses came from local authority museums, 3% from university museums and 9% from “other”. The survey was complemented by case study visits to 20 museums and informed by additional data from AIM’s Visitor Verdict market research tool.

Perhaps the main conclusion that emerges from the research is that there is no clear picture.

Stephen Connolly, the founding director of DC Research, says: “There’s no tick-box approach – we found that you can’t just copy what someone else does.”

The success of charging and pricing strategies is dependent on the wider context, the report finds, including a museum’s characteristics, aims and vision; its collections and visitor profile; effective communication; and an organisational culture that ensures staff and volunteers are on board with its approach. A guide published alongside the report offers more detail on choosing the best strategy, as well as examples of pricing innovations, such as the “pay what you think” model trialled at Bristol Museums.

But some of the results emerging from the report may reignite the more ideological debate around free admission. One key finding is that admission charging has little impact on visitor diversity, with similar audience profiles at free and paid sites – according to AIM’s Visitor Verdict data, higher social grades account for 62% of visitors at free admission sites and 60% at that charge admission, while lower social grades remain under-represented at both, accounting for 20% of visitors at free admission sites and 25% at paid ones.

The link between charging admission and visitor diversity has been contested since the Labour Party rolled out free entry at national museums in 2001. At the time, one of the policy’s key aims was to broaden the visitor mix, but it has since become apparent that, in spite of a significant rise in visitor numbers all round, the proportion of those from diverse social backgrounds and minority groups visiting free museums has remained largely static.

Behaviour patterns?

Audience behaviours are much more complex and cannot be changed by offering free entry alone, says Mark Taylor, a sociologist at Sheffield University who has extensively researched cultural participation.“[This finding] doesn’t come as a surprise to the academic community,” he says.

“People from diverse backgrounds are less interested in and less likely to feel comfortable in museums.”

There are additional cost barriers, adds Taylor, such as the price of travel or taking time off work, which can make a museum visit more expensive than the admission price alone.

Wider research into participation, such as the rolling Taking Part survey run in England by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has also revealed some interesting data on attitudes to charging. Responses to a question asking whether it is fair to pay an entry fee to public museums do not vary by ethnic or socio-economic status, with about 80% of all social categories saying that entry charges are fair. Conversely, there are strong differences between social groups in response to the question “how many family members regularly go to museums?”, with respondents from less well-off backgrounds much more likely to answer in the negative.

This data indicates that representation and peer behaviour are more important factors in determining visitor diversity than cost, says Taylor. In this respect, the content and accessibility of the museum makes “a huge difference”, he says. “Exhibitions that more closely resemble what more diverse audiences are interested in get more diverse audiences.”

If it’s not reaching the people it’s supposed to, some may ask what justification there is for continuing to offer free admission. But while the national data on visitor diversity is quite clear, on an individual level, many museums would dispute this picture, feeling that free admission policies do have a significant impact on their visitor mix, particularly when combined with other measures to target under-represented groups.

National museums outside London have long argued that the data is skewed by the very different audience profile of museums in the capital – and the AIM report acknowledges that there is a lack of data on social diversity at free museums. “It can be quite hard to collect, as it’s quite invasive, and the kind of people that are willing to fill it out can mean results are skewed,” says Taylor.

The AIM report states that 68% of museums that offer free admission say this has a “positive” or “very positive” impact on diversity/visitor mix (see box, p12). Crucially though, this definition encompasses many types of diversity, such as age groups and local representation, soitis hard to separate out how this statement applies to more specific social or ethnic categories. What is clear from the report is that free admission does benefit categories such as local visitors and families – and that more detailed research in this area is required before the debate is settled.

The AIM survey also looks at the impact on museums of introducing or axing admission charges – 11% of respondents said they had introduced a charge, while 17% had dropped their entry fees.

Unsurprisingly, the greater challenge was faced by those museums that had introduced a fee – a move being considered by a growing number of museums in response to funding cuts. Many reported a large fall in visitors, particularly locals, and although they felt that trustees and stakeholders generally appreciated their reasons for charging, they said there had been a negative impact on the museum’s reputation and its relationship with local communities.

Even in cases where admission remains free to certain visitors, the perception that a museum charges can prove difficult to shake off. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, for example, which brought in an entry fee last year and is profiled in the AIM research, suffered a greater-than-anticipated drop in visitors, despite offering free entry to locals.

Meanwhile, visitor numbers at York Art Gallery, which brought in a £7.50 entry charge when it reopened last year, have been 100,000 below target since.

Early warning system

The most effective strategy to mitigate these negative impacts, according to the report, is having a long lead-in time before charging is introduced, undertaking extensive consultation to make sure the reasons for it are recognised, and training staff to make sure they feel confident about explaining the admission fee.

Interestingly, however, the research shows that public resistance to the introduction of fees is the same whether a museum introduces a nominal charge or the market rate. In some cases, a low charge can lead to a perception of low quality, while the additional administrative burden of collecting the charge can outweigh the income it raises.

Tamalie Newbery, the executive director of AIM, says: “It is the one thing to really think about. Do good research on price levels and don’t fall into the trap of making charges really low.”

Aside from increased admissions income, charging brings other benefits, according to the report. While free museums report a higher overall secondary spend and more spontaneous donations, charging sites appear to attract more spend per visitor in shops and cafes, and also benefit from longer visitor dwell times. Charging also offers a greater opportunity to welcome visitors and capture their information.

The report will certainly give those working in museums food for thought; the issue of charging is likely to come to the fore in the coming months, with the VAT refund scheme for museums that offer free admission due to be extended to more institutions from April, and funding cuts likely to propel others to consider introducing or raising charges.

“We want to park the politics,” says Connolly. “There’s no ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ in the report. We just want to provide objective evidence of each position.”

This year’s Museums Association Conference in Glasgow (7-9 November) will include a session on social mobility in museums.

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