Free entry versus admission charging is a debate that has rumbled on in the museum sector for many years. But there are signs that the discussion may be evolving as new admission models and visitor trends emerge.
Attitudes to entry fees are changing among museum professionals and the public. Some sector leaders question why cash-strapped cultural institutions should feel guilty about seeking an entry fee when an annual ticket to a museum scarcely covers a trip to the cinema.
Others report that public resistance to paying has waned as museums have expanded their commercial operations – in short, people have become conditioned to paying and no longer automatically expect to get into museums for free.
There is also less faith in the idea that free entry is a magic bullet for improving access for under-served audiences, with measures such as targeted free entry and improved representation increasingly seen as more effective strategies.
Some research has shown that while free entry boosts footfall, the profile of visitors stays relatively static, with middle-class families benefiting the most – although this is disputed by other museum leaders, who feel that free admission is vital to diversifying audiences.
The Association of Independent Museums will soon launch research and guidance on admissions policies and pricing strategies, which it hopes will allow museums to make informed decisions.
This is sorely needed at a time when financial challenges caused by the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, combined with a continued drop in local authority funding, have forced the hand of many museums, leading a growing number to introduce or raise entry fees.
Many museums that have brought in charges are hopeful that well-thought-out approaches will enable them to maintain visitor numbers and continue to reach diverse audiences.
Kettle’s Yard art gallery in Cambridge is among those to have introduced entry charges this year due to soaring running costs: while the gallery’s exhibition spaces are free, there is a fee of up to £10.50 to access Kettle’s Yard House, the site’s adjacent historic mansion, although groups such as students and under-25s still get free admission.
A gallery spokeswoman says: “We took a considered approach to the situation so that we could explore the options fully. We would advise taking your time and consulting with stakeholders. We also consulted with other cultural organisations that had introduced charging to learn from their experience.”
Wisbech and Fenland Museum in Cambridgeshire, meanwhile, has introduced an entry fee for the first time in 100 years. Treasurer David Ball is candid about the museum’s reasons for introducing the £5 ticket, which visitors can use as an annual pass.
“We haven’t got any money,” he says. “One of the first things funders do is ask you what you’re doing to help yourself. This is a step we needed to take to convince others we’re taking this seriously. We had to be seen to be doing something.”
But as museums struggle to recoup visitors after Covid, charging clearly isn’t a panacea to the sector’s financial woes.
The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions has revealed that free museums regained visitors at a significantly faster rate than charging institutions in 2022, driven by people seeking cheaper days out in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis.
In the worst-case scenario, a badly communicated or poorly judged charging policy can have major repercussions. Nottingham Castle Trust’s collapse in 2022 was partly attributed to its high entry fee and failure to offer an annual pass, which was off-putting for locals, particularly as the castle’s grounds had formerly been free to access.
The venue has since reopened under management of the council, with a more amenable ticketing policy in place.
While most institutions continue to use traditional charging models, more-flexible strategies are emerging that could change how museums operate. In 2018, the Museum of Somerset in Taunton became an early adopter of the “pay what you think” policy, which it first brought in for a temporary exhibition on the 20th-century artist Doris Hatt.
Sam Astill, the head of museums and engagement at the South West Heritage Trust, says the policy has since evolved into “give what you can” – an enhanced donation ask – which cuts out the VAT charges that come with direct payment.
This approach is effective, but it can depend on the audience profile, says Astill. “It’s had varying degrees of success – it works better for some exhibitions than others,” he says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all. You need to adapt and try new things.”
The trust takes a pragmatic approach to charging based on the context of each venue: for example, free entry has never been an option at the Somerset Museum of Rural Life, where visitors instead purchase an annual pass. The museum targets under-served audiences in other ways, such as handing out free passes to families at schools with a high pupil premium.
The annual pass is effective for fostering an ongoing connection to the venue, says Astill – something that can be more difficult at free-entry museums.
“Local families are really seeking to use the pass and get value for money,” he says. “We’ve found that, over time, the annual pass changes a financial transaction into an emotional transaction. It manages to merge the split identity of museums. We are charities but also businesses.”
Museums face a constant battle to balance those two sides – but they are finding increasingly creative ways to do so.
Pay if and what you can
In March, the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich became one of the UK’s first cultural institutions to introduce a “pay if and what you can” model across its entire site.
The gallery’s publicity says the move is part of a “unique and radical” relaunch that aims to position the gallery as “the first museum in the world that understands art as a living entity”.
Under this ideological shift, visitors will be invited to think differently about how they interact with art, with opportunities to hug Henry Moore’s Mother and Child sculpture or experience being enclosed and on display in a showcase.
Director Jago Cooper says the relaunch would have been impossible had the gallery continued to make a distinction between free access to permanent collections and paid-for temporary exhibitions.
“I don’t like the division between permanent exhibitions, which can lack dynamism and change, and temporary exhibitions where you get all the amazing new ideas locked behind a paywall,” he says.
The institution needed fluid use of the whole building to fulfil its aim of dynamic programming that tackles societal questions. Now artists can be invited to use all the spaces in new ways, says Cooper. “The whole landscape is opened up – it will create more dynamism.”
Introduced a few months before the gallery’s high-profile reinvention, the pricing policy has been a success. “Visitor numbers are up by 30% – and that’s before the relaunch,” says Cooper.
There has been a big rise in young people and, unexpectedly, families, who may have been put off visiting exhibitions in case their children tired halfway round. Now they can just visit again to see the rest of the show.
The policy is creating a welcoming atmosphere at the front desk, says Cooper, giving people a sense of ownership over the space and boosting dwell time.
Payment points are set between £4 and £8, and about a quarter of visitors ask for free entry. Ahead of the relaunch, admissions income was about 5% below target, but spend in the cafe was up significantly.
Cooper acknowledges that the Sainsbury Centre is something of a test case for the sector. “People are waiting to see if it works, but the early signs are positive,” he says.