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Forum: Should UK museums reintroduce entrance charges?

31 August 2015

From the September issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

As some museums in the UK face cuts of up to 40 per cent, charging for admission is back on the agenda. Is this a sensible way to make up for lost funds, or a shortsighted move that will damage the whole sector?

Bill Ferris
Chief executive of Chatham Historic Dockyard, Kent, and vice chair of the Association of Independent Museums

Most museums do charge – it’s just that some of the best-known museums charge everyone through general or local taxation for the services they provide – whether we use them or not. The sums involved equate to probably £2 or £3 per head and double that for tax payers. Museums bring huge educational, cultural, social and economic benefits, but they are expensive places to run and they certainly are not free. The question might be better stated as: ‘Should museum financing change to reflect the audiences that use and benefit from the services – and should museums be more responsible for generating their income?’

It seems curious to me that significant charges are levied for activities such as music, opera, ballet, even sporting events, which already receive public funding, while certain museums are seen as different. The majority of museums have charged directly for decades. The independent museum movement has recognised, since the late 1970s, that its members need to be interesting and relevant to audiences. People would then be prepared to pay for access and support the aims of not-for-profit organisations.

Independent museums have always understood that diversification of income streams is vital, although their most significant streams are derived from visitors. Over-reliance on external funding is rare, unless that funding is from a well-endowed charity that invests in the museum to meet its purposes and does so by not charging for entry.

My own organisation, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, has a turnover of about £5m per annum (excluding capital grants, for which we fundraise). This includes rental income from our properties, film-location income, retail, catering, and almost £0.5m from sales of rope which is made in the Ropery. Our admissions income is about 20 per cent of the total. We receive an annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport of £240,000, in our role as an Arms Length Body and we have other revenue funders such as Arts Council England for programmes.

There are also plenty of successful independent museums that don’t charge. The support of volunteers is often crucial here. The best museums don’t see volunteers as a way of saving money, but as the most important way of engaging the community. Sidmouth Museum, in Devon, decided that its fundraising powers and volunteer support meant that it could open to the public for free. Its visitor numbers have increased and its trustees are hopeful that their model is sustainable.

The principle of free access is a fine thing. The leaders of charging museums would welcome the opportunity to consider a non-charging approach but can’t – for economic reasons and probably others, too. And I’m sure that many of us wouldn’t change our entrance policy even if we could. Our museums and audiences gain from our need to engage with the consumer market. We have to consider the relevance of what we do, its ‘market’ appeal, its ‘market’ value, the competition, affordability, value for money, how we operate and the return on our investment. Price can be a barrier and we all need to consider this and make sure that we make every effort not to exclude.

The big non-charging museums understand this: just look at their blockbuster exhibitions, which drive audiences and make a lot of money. The quality of what is presented is outstanding and the audience responds in great numbers. The question for museums that are considering whether to charge, or not, must be: how do you make the core collections and galleries appealing enough to make people want to pay a reasonable price for them? In many cases there will need to be considerable investment.

There is little doubt in my mind that visitor numbers will fall. This might be seen as a bad thing, but what value do many of those visiting get from the experience now? The trick will be to balance cost, affordability and value. The outcome, if the balance is right, will be higher satisfaction and a greater understanding of great collections and great museums.

Alistair Brown
Policy officer at the Museums Association

How I wish that there could be a simple answer to this question. Yet even to begin answering it, one must first recognise that the funding systems for museums in the UK are almost as diverse as their collections, and the issue of entry fees is already one of the great divides in the sector.

On the one hand, we have the free-to-enter nationals – mostly based in London, but with branches across England. Their huge success following the removal of charges in 2001 has been the subject of many, many column inches. They are joined by the country’s 700 or so local authority civic museums, the majority of which are free (though a few choose to collect admission charges at the discretion of the local authority or board of trustees).

On the other hand, there are the independent museums – heritage organisations ranging from the SS Great Britain to the Lakeland Motor Museum, which are often run as heritage businesses, and for whom charging is an important part of their day-to-day financing. We can also add to this mix university museums and military museums, and their various funding models.

For argument’s sake, let us dispense with those museums that charge already, and with the nationals – for whom free entry (though not overall funding) is protected by a Conservative Party manifesto promise. Instead, let’s focus on the country’s free civic museums.

It is these civic museums, and their collections of local, national and international importance that are most at risk. Local authority spending on museums in England has shrunk from £310m to £240m per year since 2010, and further cuts are certain. Museum leaders talk frankly behind closed doors of their fears about whether their institutions – many of which have been with us for almost 200 years – can survive in the current climate. The temptation to introduce charging as a panacea for these problems will be strong. Indeed, York Museums Trust has recently introduced a charge of £7.50 for its revamped Art Gallery, while Brighton Council introduced a £5 charge to its museums for out-of-towners in February this year.

But I believe that we must resist this slide to admission charges. It takes only a cursory glance at the founding statements of museums in towns and cities such as Liverpool or Preston to understand the vital public role they were designed to fulfil. These museums were often the result of gifts by wealthy local patrons, or of enthusiastic fundraising by a town’s citizens – and they were supposed to be open to everyone. Consider Derby Art Gallery’s founding documents, which state that it should not ‘provide a fashionable lounge where our exquisites alone may congregate to study and admire the beautiful, but to develop the artistic aspirations of all sorts and conditions’.

However naïve some of these Victorian aspirations may seem today, they are noble in intent and correct in the broadest sense. Modern civic museums are important parts of the public realm. They support communities; they educate and entertain; they care for collections that preserve our collective memory and broaden our imaginations. And they should be accessible to all, not just a privileged few.

There are many practical reasons for keeping civic museums free. Charging often ends up being a false economy. We know from previous examples that attendance numbers drop off a cliff as soon as charging is introduced. This is particularly true of museums outside tourist honeypot areas like York and Brighton. The Novium Museum in Chichester reversed a short-lived charging policy less than a year ago after it found itself more than 70 per cent short of its attendance target. The reduced footfall that comes with charging means that museums’ earned income through the shop and café often falls as well. The free-to-enter Poole museum now makes more from earned services than it used to from ticket sales.

An economist would tell you that if people valued a service such as a civic museum, they would be prepared to pay for it at the gate. But the enjoyment, the learning, and the social networks that museums can support without charging represent something that economists struggle to put any price on, and which we must strive to protect – a universal public benefit.

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