Monday 29 March 2010

Free entries (I) Museums

On the 7th of February the title in the newspaper Público that immediately drew my attention was this one: “There are more and more free entries to museusm and theatres”. It was an article by Alexandra Prado Coelho and it revealed that, according to data recently made available by OAC, in 2008 museums had registered 62% of free entries, whereas palaces and monuments 49%. In what concerns the performing arts, in the two national theatres (D.Maria II and São João) paid entries were slightly higher than the free ones, while 66% of the people who saw the performances of the National Ballet Company had not paid for the ticket.

Starting by museums, the issue of free entry is often raised in professional circles. Minister Gabriela Canavilhas herself stated in January that one of her biggest wishes is introducing free entry to all national museums. Normally, the issue is raised in the context of democratization of access, considering museums a ‘public service’, or in the perspective of raising visitor numbers and developing new audiences.

Which is the public service for which we pay nothing? Education? Health? Why shouldn´t we pay in order to visit a national museum? According to the new pricing policy
tickets cost between €2 (at a small national museum of the interior) and €5 (at the big national museums in Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto). In any way, less than a cinema ticket. There are also concessions and a number of cases that allow for a free entry. Why would the state wish to renounce this source of revenue? The fact that 61% of the entries were free in 2008 indicates that, among those visiting, the majority enjoys already easy access. The data made available by OAC are not detailed in what concerns visitor profile, but maybe we can conclude that large part of the free entries, a number close to the total of national visits, relates to school groups; whereas the number of paid entries is very close to that of foreign visitors.

If the intention is to raise visitor numbers associated to audience development, I have serious doubts that the way to go is the introduction of free entry. The idea that people don´t visit because they cannot pay and that they would if entry was free is, in my opinion, false. People don´t visit because they are not interested, because they don´t find museums relevant, because they don´t understand their language. In some cases, because they don´t even know they exist. By they spend money (and they spend much more than €5) in order to participate and assist activities and events they consider relevant, interesting, amusing; worth investing their money (and time) on.

There is no doubt that the introduction of free entry brings more visitors through the door. Nevertheless, in the majority of the cases, these are people that share the same profile or even the same people visiting more times. In order to raise visitor numbers and at the same time develop new audiences we should consider a new approach in what concerns exhibiting and interpreting museum collections and, of course, new communication strategies. When the ‘product’ is tempting, ‘clients’ do not hesitate to pay in order to get it. Considering that this is national museums we are talking about, concerned, as they should be, with access, they can, and they are already doing it, develop affordable pricing policies.

And because we usually evaluate everything empirically, in what concerns the introduction of free entry, countries that have already implemented it have also carried out visitor studies in order to evaluate it. In January 2001, national museums in the UK scrapped entrance fees to permanent exhibitions, while they continued charging (and charging a lot) for temporary exhibitions. The abolition of entrance fees was followed by a raise in the financial support guaranteed by Tony Balir´s government (twenty years earlier, Margaret Thatcher´s government had done the opposite, introducing entrance fees in order to cut In government spending on museums). Seven months later, in July 2001, museums were registering an average of 62% raise in visitor numbers. In the particular case of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the raise reached an impressive 157%, a fact also related to the opening of the British Galleries. In fact, all museums that inaugurated new wings and new services registered a significant raise in visitor numbers. In 2003 MORI published a report (available here
), the results of a study aiming to evaluate the impact of the abolition of entrance fees. The report confirmed the significant raise in visitor numbers, but it also showed that the majority were visits by people with the same socio-demographic profile or repeat visits, that is, the same people visiting more times. Another report by the Museums Association (available here) reached the same conclusions. Free entry is not enough by itself to develop new audiences.

I could even give a national example. While I was working at the Pavilion of Knowledge, there were carried out two visitor surveys per year. Among those interviewed, there were people stating they did not visit museums. The reason was usually lack of time or lack of interest. In the five years that I was involved in those surveys, rarely did people answer that they did not visit museums because they had to pay or because tickets were expensive.

Thus, considering that local, national and foreign visitors do not complain for having to pay in order to visit national museums, and that the actual pricing policy establishes relatively low tickets prices (including various concessions and free entry for a number of groups of visitors and professionals), it seems to me that museums should not give up on this income. They should continue to charge and, at the same time, they should start investing more on a better exhibition, interpretation and marketing strategy, which, apart from serving existing audiences, could contribute for the development of new ones. The offer could be more relevant, more intellectually accessible, more ‘tempting’. And I suspect that the public wouldn´t mind paying something for it.

Monday 22 March 2010

Vision, mission, strategy

Alexandre Pomar was kind enough to comment on the last post and to indicate me the link that gives access to Minister Gabriela Canavilhas´s speech on the day of the presentation of the strategy for museums of the 21st century (available here only in portuguese). I am grateful, I hadn´t read the speech yet and, actually, it does seem to try to create a context for the measures announced. In my opinion, the text of the speech should be integrated in the strategic plan document.

Despite the attempt to create a context, I confess that, when I tried to associate the general lines of the speech to specific measures in the strategy, I felt there were some discrepancies, it seems that the measures are not always aiming at materializing the aspirations. But above all I would like to comment on the point the Minister chose to stress:

“(…)all these objectives are not changing a bit the fundamental core of the museums mission: the preservation, study and enrichment of the collections (…)”.

And for whom do we do all this, I wonder.

The museum, according to the ICOM definition
, is an institution that acquires, conserves, reasearches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible evidence of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. ICOM does not define at any moment that the first three functions are more important than the last two. It´s mainly through the last two that we relate and communicate with the general public. It´s in the last two that we usually fail.

If we lose touch with the final recipients of our actions, we will continue to set up exhibitions that communicate only with specialists and the ‘initiated’, placing objects behind the glass, with labels that identify them mainly with the use of scientific jargon, indicating their date of production and, in some cases, also their materials and dimensions. We will continue to write panel texts that, apart from the curator, few people understand. We will still be unable to tell stories to common people, stories that can inspire and marvel them, or simply amuse them (I felt so disappointed when I heard Paula Rego, at the time of the opening of the Casa das Histórias, saying that the space for her collection would not be called ‘museum’, because museums don´t tell stories…). We will continue irrelevant and incomprehensible to a large part of our society. I am thinking about individual visitors, nationals and foreigners, and not about the target audiences of our museum education services, which, through their extremely rich offer, contribute significantly for an intellectually accessible and inspiring interpretation of the collections. These audiences are mainly people, the majority children, in groups and they have booked in advance in order to participate in an activity or guided tour. A large part of the general public does not visit in these conditions.

My favourite museum definition is that of the Museums Association (UK): “Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society”. I personally see a vision here.

There is a need for a vision in order to define a mission. I particularly like the mission statement (and vision statement) of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation programme Discover. I consider it clear, inspired and inspiring. Here it is:

“Discover – Gulbenkian Programme Education for Culture offers audiences of all ages a vast number of events that transform the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation´s artistic and natural heritage into a path leading to pleasure, discovery and creative thinking.

Through various approaches and methodologies for stimulating curiosity and imagination, the Programme associates experiences of the world of the senses to an interpretative and critical ‘reading’ of various arts.

The programme Discover believes that Education for Culture contributes to the ‘making’ of citizens open to creativity and the critical enjoyment of the Arts, but also, thanks to its mediating role, to the ‘making’ of people able to question the routines and take up an innovative role within the sphere of their social and professional activity.”

I can also propose to you the reading of the mission statement (that reflects a vision as well) of the Education Service of the Casa da Música (available here only in portuguese): "The Education Service of the Casa da Música invites you to enter the infinite universe of music through a variety of experiences that allow to hear, to do, to create and to learn. Independent of one´s age or conditions, everyone can find in this House ways of discovery, participation and total enjoyment". The document then presents the service´s programme that aims to materialize the mission-promise.

Vision, mission and, in the end, strategy and concrete measures. In order for everything to make sense, this should be the order. And when we get to the measures, these should clearly derive from and correspond to the vision and mission announced. Thus, we have a complete picture and a better defined way ahead.

After that, we evaluate.

Monday 15 March 2010

Museums and strategies for the 21st century

It is natural that the presentation of a strategic plan creates debate. The IMC Strategic Planning – Museums for the 21st Century (available here in portuguese only) could not be any different. It has already been widely debated and commented in the media and various forums of museum professionals and people in general who follow and participate in the country´s cultural life.

I do not wish to repeat or comment on everything that has been said. I would like to give my opinion about some aspects of the plan that, it seems to me, have not been discussed yet.

First of all, I would like to highlight the lack of a vision statement. Any strategic plan, before specifying objectives and concrete measures, should provide a context for them, it should help us understand what the big picture is and what expectations we could have. What is the place the Ministry of Culture would like museums to have in the portuguese society of the 21st century? Why does it still invest in them the tax payers´ money? What can society expect? What are the challenges, at a local, national and international level? Which are the factors that will determine priorities?

Another omission that worried me since I first read the document was the total lack of references to the public. If people are the raison d´être of museums, the final beneficiaries of their activity – whether museum professionals, researchers, students, ‘initiated’ public or, and above all, ‘non-initiated’ public -, how is it possible that they are never clearly and directly mentioned in the strategic document? When the performance of national museums is mainly measured, at least publicly, by the number of visitors, when some museums express a constant concern for raising visitor numbers, diversifying their offer and raising its quality, it is disappointing that a strategy for museums of the 21st century fails to define them as one of the factors that determine, or should determine, the priorities. As long as people are not clearly defined as a determining factor in the strategic planning, museums will continue to be visited and enjoyed by a minority; people will continue to think that museums are important, yes, but they are not for them, they are irrelevant to them; there will continue to exist a lack of affective and intellectual involvement, which in some countries motivates the whole society (the local society, not foreign tourists…), whenever necessary, to defend its museums and not to abstain, considering that this is a struggle concerning just the professionals and those ‘initiated’. If we do not look at the exterior, it is inevitable that we will go on looking at ourselves, and Axis 5 is another sign of this attitude. Here, in the introduction, we read for the first, and also for the last, time the word “communication”. In the lines that follow we clearly understand that it is “internal communication” we are talking about.

Not wishing to speak only about the omissions, I was very pleased to read in the strategic document that there is an aim to monitor and evaluate the strategy (Axis 2). Nevertheless, the way to carry out this task is not specified. The definition of indicators, for the evaluation of the strategy, but also of museum performance in general, is a need and an obligation, that goes much beyond counting visitors and is specific for each museum, based on the objectives it proposes to achieve. Some, naturally, are common, others are related to each institution´s very specific reality. We should consult and learn with those countries that have already tested and implemented evaluation models, and not be tempted to start from zero.

I have left management models for the end. In the various comments I have read so far about this point in the strategy, it seems that it is a question of choosing between a more commercial vision and one more related to the care of collections. As if we should choose. As if we could choose… Once again, we will not have to start from zero. Various models – some better, others worse – have already been tested and implemented in other countries. It is the profession itself, that of the museologist, that can and should train its managers. People who will gain, if they don´t already have it, the necessary sensitivity for managing and directing cultural institutions and, specifically, museums. They might be people with an art history, archaeology, history, sociology background, etc; they are more and more people with a background in economics. Museum management is, in some countries, an essential part of museum studies courses. There are more and more leadership courses for museum professionals in the UK, USA, Australia (although we should not fail to distinguish between leadership and management). Both ICTOP (ICOM International Committee for the Training of Pesonnel) and INTERCOM (ICOM National Committee for Management) can orientate our decisions and support our actions.