Title: “Taking Charge – Evaluating the Evidence: The Impact of Charging or Not for Admissions on Museums”
Author(s): DC Research Ltd.
Publisher: DC Research / Association of Independent Museums
Topics: museum admission, admission price, museum attendance, museum finances, UK, Wales
Methods: literature review, survey, case studies, interviews
What it says: Purpose and product: DC Research Ltd undertook this study in the first half of 2016 to understand the effects of charging or not charging for admission at UK museums – and of changing a museum’s policy toward charging – on attendance, visitor diversity, funding, visitor experience, and institutional relationships. (The research was commissioned by the Association of Independent Museums (AIM), in partnership with Arts Council England (ACE) and the Museums Archives and Libraries Division (MALD) of the Welsh Government.) The researchers produced four documents: the full report discussed here, a separate executive summary, a summary of the results from Wales, and a “Success Guide” capturing lessons learned for use by museums.
Methodology: The authors reviewed the existing literature on the consequences of charging for museum admission; conducted a survey generating usable responses from 311 museums across the UK; produced 20 case studies, primarily of museums that had changed their charging position, involving site visits and interviews with a variety of stakeholders; and consulted 18 museum experts through one-on-one conversations. Notably, all of the study components excluded National Museums and Galleries, which have tended to be the emphasis of much previous research into this issue in the UK. The authors also had access to AIM’s proprietary Visitor Verdict database.
Findings: Few clear patterns emerged with respect to what kinds of museums charge for admission or the effects of charging. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that other factors, including how a change in charging policy is communicated and managed, seem to matter more for nearly all of the metrics considered. The main exception is that charging seems to be associated with more time spent in the museum (longer “dwell times”) and possibly with greater likelihood of using the museum shop and café. Unsurprisingly, charging was found to provide a useful focal point to welcome visitors and collect data.
Of the 311 respondents, 57 percent charge for general admission and/or specific exhibitions, with a mean general admission price of about £6 for adults; this was higher for museums with more visitors and those that reported being a key attraction in their area. There was a stark difference in perceptions between institutions that are free and those that charge: the former mostly believed that being free had a positive effect on the number and diversity of visitors and on spontaneous donation and secondary spend; the latter mostly believed that charging did not have much effect on any of these. (Interestingly, separate data suggests that the average visitor experience rating was similar across the two kinds of institutions.)
Only 26 percent of the 311 respondents changed their charging policy in the last three years, with 70 percent of those who did being museums that already charged and merely increased price or scope. The institutions that increased charges mostly believed that these increases had no significant effect on number or diversity of visitors or spontaneous donations. The nine institutions that went from free to charging reported that adding a fee did reduce attendance overall (by some 35-40 percent, anecdotally) and disproportionately for locals and repeat visits, but did not seem to affect the social diversity of attendees. Data from AIM’s Visitor Verdict offers some support for this last point: the 2016 breakdown of attendees by social class was nearly identical for charging and free museums. The museums reported, however, that special outreach and discount programs are necessary to achieve this. (Some of the institutions that switched from charging to free reported an increase in diversity, although data was often thin.) The institutions that added a new fee also reported that spontaneous donations decreased, but that this was more than offset by the admissions income.
In terms of best practices for changing charging position, the authors conclude from their case studies that communication is the most important factor for success, emphasizing that staff should be trained to be confident and positive, stakeholders (especially the local community) should understand why the change is happening, any increase should ideally be tied to an improvement in the visitor experience, and thoughtful pricing tiers and discounts are key to maintaining the diversity of attendees.
What I think about it: The design of the study means the authors rely mostly on what museums perceive to be true, and so it doesn’t allow analysis of causality – especially since so few of the institutions involved changed their admissions policy. The authors wisely adduce external data (especially from Visitor Verdict) to triangulate those perceptions and adjudicate among them, but because the dataset is proprietary, it is hard to know how much confidence to place in it, and the authors do not address that question. As a result, the findings on the effects of charging must be taken with a grain of salt. More interpretation, perhaps from the case studies, might have increased the usefulness of this study.
The real value of the work may therefore be in the success guide, which provides practical advice to museums considering changing their policy. Here the anecdotal approach yields valuable insight, and the narrative style allows the authors to put their suggestions in the context of specific institutions they have learned from so their applicability to other institutions can be weighed by the latter’s staff.
The report would be strengthened if the authors made available the list of relevant institutions in the UK and/or of those that received the survey (to clarify how representative the response base is) and the survey instrument itself, without which it is sometimes hard to interpret the summarized responses. For example, only 3 percent of respondents charge for specific exhibitions only; one-third of free institutions believe being free has no impact on “admissions income”; and respondents are more likely to charge admission if they report that competition for visitors is more intense in their area. These findings strike me as quite counter-intuitive, and I’m not sure how to evaluate them: access to the survey would help me understand whether I am interpreting the terms differently from the respondents. These are also examples of when more interpretation from the authors would be useful: if these things are true, what do they mean? If not, why do the museums perceive them to be?
What it all means: This is a topic on the minds of many museums: about half of the institutions surveyed have considered changing their admissions policy, though the vast majority think it is “not very likely” or “not at all likely” that they will change in the next three years. That last point, and the fact that such a small number of institutions actually did switch from free to charging or vice versa, suggests that this debate might be a proxy for more fundamental issues – and potentially a distraction from real engagement with them.
For example, the debate about charging in the US is often considered in terms of equity and access. This report (and especially the Visitor Verdict data it cites) suggest that charging or not charging is not the main factor in achieving diverse attendance, though the grain of salt mentioned above must be added. If that’s right, this report is a salutary reminder to focus on what matters to achieving our desired ends, which may be more about communication and implementation than admissions charge. But one additional caveat applies here: like many studies touching on diversity in the UK, this one focuses on social class based on occupation; race is not considered.