Does levying an entrance fee always pay off for museums?
Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 119/03, 01.03.2019
A number of regional museums and galleries have recently introduced admission charges, often as a response to cuts in their public funding. But what are the downsides to abandoning the principle of free entry? Geraldine Kendall Adams investigates
Admission charging is one topic guaranteed to cause debate among anyone involved in museums and galleries. It’s almost 20 years since entrance fees were dropped at the UK’s national museums and galleries, and although the strong ideological argument remains that cultural heritage should be free for everyone to enjoy, in practical terms, much has changed since that landmark moment in museum policy.
With public funding decimated, the sector is under intense pressure to develop alternative, stable income streams – and charging is one option that’s increasingly back on the table.
For now at least, there’s not been much discussion about bringing charges back at national institutions. And plenty of museums are continuing to sign up to the VAT refund scheme supporting free entry, which broadened its eligibility criteria in 2016.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park and London’s Design Museum are among those that have dropped admission charges in the past few years to join the scheme. Many other regional venues have looked at charging and decided against it, for a variety of reasons.
But some regional museums have decided to go ahead and introduce an admission fee. At the start of this year, the National Football Museum (NFM), which receives funding from Manchester City Council, moved to a charging model.
The independent Holburne Museum in Bath and Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall have also introduced charges recently, and Museums Journal is aware of several other free institutions that are looking into the possibility.
For some, it’s a simple matter of reducing their dependency on council funding. The NFM receives 66% of its income from Manchester City Council but is hoping its new business strategy will allow it to bring this down to 30% over the next three years.
The NFM has adopted a mixed model of free admission for Manchester residents and charges for non-residents. This approach attempts to settle some of the more ethical questions around charging, such as whether people whose taxes directly fund a museum should have to pay to access it, and whether out-of-towners should be asked to pay for wear and tear on local services. It’s also intended to prevent large drop-offs in visits by locals, who are the visitor type most deterred by the introduction of an entrance fee.
The approach isn’t foolproof, however. One early adopter of the model was Brighton where in 2015, as a consequence of funding cuts, the council chose to introduce a charge at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery for non-residents. “Interestingly, the people that complained the most were those residents who didn’t have to pay,” says Janita Bagshawe, the head of Brighton Museums.
This was partly down to the inconvenience of having to show proof of residence. “People don’t necessarily carry around a utility bill,” says Bagshawe. “There were also people who thought they were residents but weren’t. Some people were upset because they couldn’t get to the toilet – they didn’t even seem to notice they were walking through a museum.”
Bringing in charges also required additional resources at the venue. “We had to do quite a lot to train up staff and change our reception desk situation and till system,” says Bagshawe. In the early days of the entrance fee, significant queues built up, and at times, it was all hands on deck to give front-of-house staff support and help explain the situation to sometimes-disgruntled visitors.
The introduction of a fee did have a negative impact on visitor figures. “But how many were coming in to use the museum and not just the cafe or the toilet?” asks Bagshawe.
One consequence of charging is that the museum now knows much more about how many people are visiting and who they are. In addition, following the introduction of a joint three-day museum pass, the city’s less central museums, such as Preston Manor, have benefited from a rise in visitors.
The museum service is also more conscious about its public programming. “We’ve got to be mindful about what exhibitions will really drive footfall,” says Bagshawe. “We’ve got to be programming some things that are absolutely excellent.”
So far, the income generated by the charge is matching projections, says Bagshawe. “And it did mean that we didn’t have to close a building – think about how many staff we would have lost. We have been cushioned.”
Holburne Museum in Bath was another venue facing a stark choice when it introduced charges in October 2018. The museum, which does not receive any public funding, had been running a deficit every year since it reopened in 2011 following a refurbishment.
Initially, it was hoped that an endowment would cover the shortfall but this was not the case, and the situation was becoming urgent by the time director Chris Stephens joined the team two years ago.
Having previously worked at Tate, Stephens says he is a strong believer in the principle of free entry. “But I’ve realised, that’s what public subsidy buys,” he says. “And we had no subsidy.”
The museum’s trustees and management looked at various options, including a more aggressive donations policy, but none would have generated the income required. Charging seemed like the obvious solution.
One concern about entry fees is that they might deter audiences that museums already find hard to attract, particularly those on low incomes. Stephens says this was an anxiety, although he was reassured by research published by the Association of Independent Museums in 2016, which showed that, although charging admission led to a drop in overall numbers, it did not appear to have a significant impact on audience diversity, which has remained stagnant in museums for a long time. This finding is controversial, however, as many museums say that free entry is vital to their audience diversity.
As it isn’t funded by the local authority, Holburne Museum did not feel obliged to offer free entry to residents, although under-18s and local university students do not have to pay. Rather than offering a complex range of concessions, the museum decided to offer free entry every Wednesday after 3pm and a free evening once a month, both of which have proved popular with locals.
Staff dealt with the public’s reaction by being upfront about the museum’s financial difficulties, says Stephens. “The position before had been not to talk about it publicly, but we started being honest with visitors, explaining why it had to happen.”
The biggest problem has been policing the charge, he adds. To keep the museum lobby free-flowing, there are no barriers nor ticket checks. Instead, paying visitors are given a sticker – and staff can feel reticent to approach those who aren’t wearing one.
“The sticker thing is our achilles heel,” says Stephens. “Some people do find ways to circumvent the system. But I think someone trying to sneak in is a good sign that people want to visit.”
As is the case in Brighton, Stephens says the museum is conscious about what it offers paying visitors. “We had already been charging entry for our temporary exhibition space, which was in a small room that didn’t seem like value for money. One of the benefits is that charging frees us up in our programming – now we can plan more adventurously around the building.”
Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s (MA) policy officer, says as more museums consider charging, it’s important to be aware that what works in one area might not be suitable in another.
“It’s notable that the places that have introduced charges for non-residents tend to be those with quite high tourist numbers, so they can count on a certain number of tourists to cough up,” he says.
It also means that areas that already have a strong cultural offer are better able to protect that provision through charging admission – an opportunity that’s not available to museums in less-advantaged areas. “People are understandably nervous about trying to charge in communities where there’s not a lot of disposable income,” says Brown.
The MA is concerned about more museums being forced to make difficult trade-offs because of public funding cuts. “We’ve always recognised that charging admission is a mixed picture, but what we don’t want to see is an expansion of charging,” says Brown. “One of the real achievements of the past 20 years is that entry to huge swathes of our museums is free and that they’re there for everyone’s benefit. Charging can be a red herring – it won’t solve all of your financial problems.”
Admission charging models in museums
Brighton Museum and Gallery
£5.20 maximum charge for non-residents (free for residents of Brighton and Hove)
Free entry once a month for special events
Holburne Museum, Bath
£11 charge plus £1.50 requested donation
Half price for 18- to 25-year-olds
Free for under-18s and university students
Free entry every Wednesday after 3pm, plus one evening each month
National Football Museum, Manchester
£10 maximum charge for non-residents (free for residents of the City of Manchester)
Entry cost includes repeat visits within a 12-month period