Tuesday, 4 April 2017

To charge or not to charge: the data

As far as I am aware of, decisions to charge or not to charge and how in Portuguese national museums are never based on research. Those who scrap admission fees do it in the name of “democratisation” and “accessibility” and state that the loss of income is not significant (never mentioning how much it is, though). Those who reinstate them usually speak of the need to generate some income.

Although previous research and summative evaluation is not part of our practice in Portugal, this is not the case in other countries. And even though we seem to lack our own specific data, we can always learn from the experience and shared knowledge of others.

Taking charge – Evaluatingthe Evidence: The impact of charging or not for admissions on museums, published last August by the Association of Independent Museum (UK), was on my “to read” list for some time now. Among its key findings, there are points that don’t come as a surprise at all and should always be taken into consideration by those wishing to decide on admission fees or free entry. To mention two that directly relate to the usual arguments used in Portugal:

1. There is no direct link between the diversity of audiences and whether a museum charges for admission or not, with the pattern in terms of social mix being very similar.

2. There is no consistent relationship between levels of secondary spend (i.e in the shop) and whether a museum charges for admission.
As I said, there’s no surprise in this. As well as in the fact that free entry museums have a higher rate of repeat visits (p.17). This is the experience of everyone, in any country, working closely with visitors. People’s relationships with museums are not that different from place to place (as most studies show).

At the same time, there were a couple of surprises I would also like to mention:

1. Within the AIM sample, people with lower income (social grades C2 and DE in the British system) represent 25% of visitors for paid admission museums and 20% of visitors for free admission museums. It is also mentioned in the report that, at a national level, these groups represent 47% among museum visitors. They account for 22% of the UK population (p. 16).

2. Secondary spending is slightly higher at museums that charge for admission (p.17).

3. People tend to stay more time in museums that charge (p.17).

It is worth reading the whole 37-page report, as it also includes lessons learnt from twenty museums which: a) moved from free to charging; or b) moved from charging to free; or c) were already charging and increased their entry fees. Advice for museums which wish to move towards any of these directions is presented in the Success Guide: Successfully Setting Admission Policy and Pricing, also published by AIM and based on the report findings.

Two more things we should point out that become clear in this report:

1. “Whether to charge for admission and, if so, what pricing strategy to use are key decisions, requiring careful consideration”.

2. “In making any changes, it is especially important to communicate clearly with stakeholders and the local community about the reasons for the changes and to ensure that staff are positive and confident in explaining them to visitors”.

Some important lessons here, both for our governments (current, past and future) and museum professionals. Decisions must be informed and not based on wishful thinking, “popular demand” or populist statements. It’s not enough (and we are not being honest with ourselves and others) to continue waving the flags of “democratisation” and “access”, or that of “income generation”. We all know by now that scrapping or reinstating admissionfees does not solve any of these issues. We need to be more serious about all of this and we need to work harder, differently, if we wish to see our culture becoming more democratic and people who have access to it become more diverse.

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