Museums and… Free Admission

As someone whose job is involved with information management and preservation, modern social media is seemingly engineered to fuck this up as much as possible. Google isn’t good at digging through social media platforms (even its own ones) and Twitter’s search tools are abysmal as anyone who has tried to find something they know they saw fleetingly scroll past can testify. In order for easy reference and retrieval before it becomes irretrievable kipple, I’ll be putting some of this stuff here starting with this mini thread on Museums and… Free Admission.

Originally posted on 16th of August 2019 in response to this report on Know Your Own Bone which was ‘doing the rounds’ of the museum twitterati. There’s some interesting data presented but

This [report] is the museum/visitor attraction version of is organic food more nutritious? Let’s Talk Freely About Free Admission- Does It Really Impact Who Visits? (DATA). i.e. The question is completely irrelevant and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the point or principle of the thing. And much like visitor figures, data can prop up any false equivalence [oooh so sassy Mr. Sassypants].

I should be clear, I’m coming from a strictly from a museum perspective. What do I know about private commercial tourist attractions which are bundled together in this report?

THEN THERE WAS AN INTERMISSION AND I WANTED TO JUST LEAVE IT THERE BUT…

Here’s why the question is irrelevant.

1) For many public institutions that. [Free admission] was. the. deal. Have these irreplaceable treasures but they belong to the people & you can’t sting them to see it. In some cases because astounding altruism, in others legacy protection.

2) There’s a difference to being accessible to all and not being inaccessible to anyone. Museums are the latter but museuming is still a leisure time activity. The principle is that we don’t exclude people by default with an entry fee.

3) There’s a short but rich history and an entire section of our profession dedicated to targeted audience work precisely because freely accessible permanent displays obviously don’t work for all audiences. But it’s nature this work hits fewer people than who walk through the door but their work is ~100% successful in reaching targeted audiences. Colleagues who work with schools, communities, hospital patients, prisoners, universities etc. I salute you, your work is sooo often overlooked when we’re ‘Museums should’ing all the time.

4) In general there’s limited value in comparing Art Museums/Science Museums/Historic Sites/Zoos/Aquaria each of those categories encompass a broad array of institutions within and across categories- public, not for profit, private, commercial, governmental, civic etc.

5) Because of ‘data’ and reports like this there is quiet death of some very long running publicly minded services. Walk-in print rooms is one where anyone, on any day could request to see works by Rubens, Picasso etc.

Lastly, this isn’t to say that some of the points about ‘who museums’ don’t apply. Museums are aware & unbelievably still reactive to this when many are critically under-resourced. So please bear this in mind for the next ‘uncomfortable data’ & ‘museums should’ comes around.

Tl;dr In summary; not charging for entry doesn’t encourage more diverse audiences nor does charging and nobody thought either did anyway.

This debate comes around every now and then, especially as pressure to generate income/cover costs grows and grows. I’ve worked for museums that do and don’t charge and those decisions should be made at the museum level but I think it’s a decision that needs to be informed and I took this report to be misleading in that specific instance.

As I indicate with point 4, there’s a certain amount of peas and carrots between comparing at the country level too. This report is based on American institutions and in all likelihood does not accurately track to European and specifically UK (R.I.P) museums.

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