Hannah Redler (L); Julie Finch (R)

The conversation: Should we be charging for temporary exhibitions?

Hannah Redler; Julie Finch, Issue 113/11, p19, 01.11.2013
Hannah Redler is the head of Media Space, Science Museum, London; Julie Finch is the head of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives

Dear Hannah


New ways of generating income are at the heart of charging for temporary exhibitions – and possibly a substitute for charged entry to museums.

We have introduced a charging system for temporary exhibitions, such as the Roman Empire exhibition at the city museum. However, we are trialling an approach at M Shed for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery.

We plan our “pay what you think it is worth” approach to become a substitute for charging for exhibitions. Is building distinctiveness and commerciality in temporary exhibitions a reality, and will the public buy it?

Julie

Dear Julie

We need to be more entrepreneurial. Our traditional income streams are changing and, in many cases, reducing. What our publics buy into depends on how successful we are at going beyond the obvious target of “value for money”. We must be sensitive to the fact that we are playing to an audience and need to consider

what gets them going. How does the business case work on the “what you think it’s worth” model? I noticed the Roundhouse applied it to the recent Conrad Shawcross exhibition, Timepiece.

Hannah

Dear Hannah


The Timepiece exhibition is experiential, demanding an emotional response and a discretionary decision on “what you think it’s worth”. Our inspiration came from the music industry and restaurants.

We are experiencing five times more visitors than a paying exhibition of a similar kind, there are no staff costs for ticketing and spend is by donation, so there are no VAT implications.

We explain that any discretionary spend will go towards public programmes, the visitor decides what it is worth and we offer a feedback facility. Social investment decision making – surely this is the future?

Julie


Dear Julie

There are questions around whether the model works best for particular shows. How do we protect our ability to deliver more special-interest, less immediately popular projects? Would you ever worry that you would find yourself “playing to the crowd”, possibly bypassing “harder” shows?

Hannah

Dear Hannah


We need to look at what our audiences want and what will they pay for. Museums have to develop a relationship with their audiences. Even in these straitened times, should we invest more in research and development, and audience intelligence, and take a canny view on income generation, or is there a magic route to reciprocity between museums and their audiences?

Julie

Dear Julie

The magic route is dialogue informed by genuine understanding of audiences, as you suggest. The Science Museum has audience researchers who explore proposed exhibitions in advance with target visitor groups, evaluate exhibitions in progress and conduct summative evaluation of finished projects.

This allows us to find out preferences and barriers to engagement or learning. We could use this information to create a framework whereby some projects are funded along traditional models, with others more free to innovate.

Rather than allowing reduced budgets to result in more conservative approaches, perhaps we need to allow the uncertainty to force us into being experimental.

Hannah


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