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.

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