Adopting new charging models - Museums Association

Adopting new charging models

Flexible pricing for exhibitions and online talks pays off
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Sam Astil
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Over the past three years, the South West Heritage Trust has been experimenting with flexible charging for its exhibitions and public programme.

The Museum of Somerset in Taunton, which for several years has operated under a free-entry model familiar to many civic museums and galleries, has been the focus of our work. Historically, direct income from admissions was minimal. At the same time, audience research and experience suggests that a traditional charging scheme would be a significant barrier to engagement. 

In 2018, the trust introduced Pay What You Think for an exhibition exploring the life of the 20th-century artist Doris Hatt. The aim was to drive up revenue. Visitors would be invited to make a payment towards the exhibition based on the value they placed on what they experienced. Our in-house design team developed a Pay What You Think brand for the gallery, as well as signage explaining how a financial contribution would support our work as a charity. 

Volunteer stewards participated in audience engagement training and were equipped with specially created payment envelopes. The Pay What You Think initiative yielded immediate results, generating significant revenue for the trust at the same time as maintaining free access – payment was encouraged but was not a requirement for entry. 

For our major exhibition Landscapes of the Mind: The Art of Tristram Hillier in 2019, the trust launched a Give What You Think model, which had an emphasis on visitor donations rather than direct payment. This evolution of our approach helped to maximise income through Gift Aid and removed the requirement to pay VAT. We created branded donation envelopes and installed contactless donation technology, working with our commercial partner Goodbox. 

Give What You Think has also performed strongly, although the level of donation per head varies significantly depending on the exhibition and the associated audience demographics. It has also offered funding bodies and partners the reassurance that access remains at the heart of our work and mission.

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During the pandemic, the Museum of Somerset has used an online booking system to manage admissions. Visitors have been able to donate during the booking transaction, with the result that overall donations per head have increased, although income through Give What You Think has marginally declined.

In 2020, the South West Heritage Trust, like many organisations in the sector, expanded its digital programme. For a series of online lockdown lectures,  a flexible charging model was applied whereby users could pay £3, £5 or £7 for access to an evening Zoom talk. We’ve also experimented with charges for one-off talks linked to exhibitions and projects in the wider organisation. Revenue from online talks has been impressive and expenditure has been reduced by comparison with similar “live” events held before the pandemic. We have continued to provide free access to aspects of our online programme. One example, a webinar on A Day in the Life of an Archivist, provided admission-free entry to a session on careers in archives, local studies and heritage. 

We plan to continue experimenting with charging models and are considering whether other areas of our activity might benefit from a new approach. Could room hire for community organisations be offered on a flexible model? Might there be options to deliver aspects of our programme for families and young people on a flexible basis? Developing the model has helped unify the organisation, particularly in the midst of the wider challenge and uncertainty arising from the pandemic. 

In the period ahead, we will continue to calibrate an approach that allows us to balance our ambitions as a heritage business with our identity as an educational charity.

Sam Astill is the head of museums and engagement at the South West Heritage Trust

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