Monday, June 20, 2011

The free entry debate

I had dinner last week with senior staff from the Natural History Museum in London, here in Australia for the opening of the new Scott exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Do make time to visit it if you are in Sydney until October or catch it after that in London at NMH or mid next year in Christchurch at the Canterbury Museum. And spare a thought for our colleagues at the latter museum, who had just finished getting straight after the February 22nd earthquake when another one struck last week and took them almost literally back to square one again.
But coming back to NMH, they have a nice problem of over crowding. At weekends and on public holidays they can have as many as 22,000 visitors a day and that is significantly compromising the quality of the visit. Overall numbers grew by 10% last year taking them over the 3 million visitors a year mark , and fourth in the UK museum popularity stakes behind the British Museum, Tate Modern and the National Gallery. So their focus is now on how to fill the Museum on quieter days and also ensure the quality of the visit is maintained. Bear in mind that all National museums in the UK are still free entry, despite political murmurings of doing away with this.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, achieving growth in visitor numbers is taxing senior museum executives, with numbers either plateauing or sliding at most major museums. One significant difference is that they are almost without exception ticketed entry institutions. The Met may still be the third most visited museum on the planet (after the Louvre (8.5m) and the BM (5.8m) at 5.2 m visitors per annum), but they have decided they need to raise the entrance fee on July 1st from $20 to $25.

That is causing some interesting debate as reported in the NY Times last week. Perhaps the most interesting are: a) whether public museums have a moral obligation like libraries to be free, i.e. should the public have to pay to see what belongs to them and b) how should an entrance fee compare in value to say a cinema ticket or a meal.

No one has a definitive answer to these issues, but there is little doubt that the acres of treasures at the Met remain good value for hours of edutainment even at $25. The bigger consideration is whether the rise is going to discourage lower income visitors, and indeed whether the price hike is in fact a way of limiting over crowding. The Met says very much not and points out quite validly that the entry fee is only recommended, and voluntary. Either way it is going to be interesting to watch their visitor numbers.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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