Nearly a month after AIM launched its new Success Guide – Successfully Setting Admission Policy and Pricing – and the research behind it (jointly commissioned with Arts Council England and the Welsh Government), we’ve been speaking to AIM’s Vice Chair, Matthew Tanner, about how the research has been received and what next steps are needed to help museums; including further research to support museums to attract more diverse visitors.
AIM’s Vice Chair, Matthew Tanner
AIM: Matthew, you introduced this research at the launch event in Cardiff on 8 September and you are speaking about it at the Visitor Attractions Conference in London this week. Why do you think it is so important for museums to have evidence to support their decisions about whether to charge for admission or not?
Matthew Tanner: Whether to charge or not to charge for admission is a question that many people want to see addressed – so AIM has looked in detail at the problem in this research report. There is a wealth of practical information in the report to help any museum considering making changes to its admissions policy – helping us all understand on a rational basis the impact of our decisions. The truth is until now, there has been too little hard evidence in terms of the impact of charging for admission, which has led to people sometimes taking entrenched positions based on politics and emotion, rather than on data and analysis.
AIM seeks an evidence based contribution to this issue, so that it can support museums with all or any charging models. What this report does is to provide evidence and offer a fresh start, moving us past a debate which had become rather sterile. For the landscape is much more complicated than is often acknowledged. The research showed 37% of independent museums have free entry policies and 37% of local authority museums charge.
We wanted to make sure that the overall tone of the work is equally inclusive of both museums that charge and that don’t. We avoid a tone that ‘justifies’ charging museums, but it is useful to highlight some of the presumptions people sometimes make unthinkingly.
AIM: One of the findings, which has surprised some people, is that there is little difference in the socio-economic background, or in other diversity characteristics, between the visitors to free-entry museums and those that charge admission. Why is this important to recognise?
Matthew Tanner: It has been an old and lazy habit to assume that some museums are entirely free, and that’s always good, and some are not – and that is not so good. We know it’s much more complex, and that simplistic view simply cannot stand any longer.
For example, AIM Visitor Verdict shows AB social grades clearly account for the highest individual group – 60% for paid admission and 62% for free admission museums. Whereas, for the UK as a whole these groups accounted for 22% of the population. Conversely, the proportions of visitors falling within the C2 and DE groups (25% for paid admission museums and 20% for free admission museums), were much lower than the national picture, where close to 47% of people are in these groups.
At AIM National Conference in Edinburgh this year, Sir Peter Luff called for a greater mix and diversity of visitors – we need to now to respond and move the conversation on and away from ‘charging museums being inaccessible’ or ‘free ones being full of visitors from diverse backgrounds’. Whether a museum charges or not has little or no effect on the diversity of its audience – other factors are much more important. Some museums moving from charging to free do report increases in visitors, particularly from local people, but note this should not be confused with diversity – there is no change in the overall diversity of visitors in those situations.
AIM’s Vice Chair, Matthew Tanner, with Jonathan Durnin and Dr Stephen Connolly from DC Research at the launch of the admissions report on 8 September
AIM: So what do we know about why few people from the C2, D and E socio-economic grades visit museums?
Matthew Tanner: One of the significant findings of the National Survey for Wales is in relation to barriers to entry to museums for Welsh residents. The survey asked respondents to indicate the reasons why they did not visit a museum, and found that the cost of visiting was one of the lowest given reasons, with just 3% expressing this as a reason for not visiting. The most common reasons were a lack of interest (31%) and difficulty in finding the time to visit (30%). A further 19% indicated that it had never occurred to them to visit a museum in any case.
There are of course museums that are the exception to this pattern around social mix of visitors – e.g. Beamish and the Black Country Living Museum, achieving a social mix and diversity of visitor that reflects their community, but these are not distinguished by whether they charge for admissions or not, and this broad pattern needs to be acknowledged.
AIM: If it is not being free or charging that is creating the barriers to a more diverse audience… then what is it? And how can we overcome it?
Matthew Tanner: Wouldn’t we all like to know? Well yes we would. So I took the opportunity of the launch of the report last month, to call on Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Government to commission vital new research into understanding the real cultural and practical barriers that prevent real reach and diversity in our audiences, and enable us to overcome these barriers. ACE, HLF and others should be encouraged to research beneath the waves around the diversity iceberg so that we can all benefit.
Reaching out to all, whether we need to charge or need to be free, is a common aim – we need to understand in common how we can best reach that target. I am pleased to say that this call for further research has already been heeded by others in the sector and AIM is putting together a group to work on commissioning this next vital piece of research.
AIM would like to hear from any museums that have a diverse mix of visitors and would be willing to be considered as case studies in any future research. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
To access the Success Guide and all reports associated with this research, please visit: Evaluating the Evidence The Impact of Charging or Not for Admissions on Museums
- AIM Report section 3.7 & passim
- AIM Report passim