AIM commissioned the study, Taking Charge: evaluating the evidence, and its accompanying guide for people running museums Successfully Setting Admissions Policy and Pricing from DC Research, in partnership with ACE and the Welsh Government.

The study intends to help museums understand the impact of charging for admission, or not, on all aspects of operating a successful museum. The results it says dispel some myths that persist around this issue and will enable museums to make evidence-based decisions in this sometimes contentious area – but one that is vital to museums’ future sustainability. The accompanying practical guide will assist museums with decision-making about whether an admission charge is right for their museum and if so, what price they should set.

AIM launched a sector-wide survey in March and 311 replies were used in compiling the data for the report along with a detailed review of previous research and literature about the impact of charging for admissions to museums. The research also included visiting 20 case study museums to assess in depth the impact of charging for admissions, and carrying out a range of one-to one consultations with key museum stakeholders.

Figures from the report show that currently 42 per cent of the participating museums charge for admissions only, 3 per cent for specific exhibitions only, 12 per cent for both, meaning 57 per cent of museums charge in some way and 43 per cent do not charge at all for admissions.

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Crucially, the report highlights that the diversity of a museum’s audience is not affected by any decision to charge entry or allow free access

AIM Chair, Richard Evans

Key findings show that a large proportion of independent museums provide free admission, and a large proportion of local authority museums charge, so there is no ‘typical’ charging or free-entry museum. It also found that what a museum charges has no effect on the diversity of its audience – both charging and free-entry museums have similar demographic profiles for their visitors.

“This important report will help all of us that work in the sector – guiding us to make much better decisions in the future,” said AIM Chair, Richard Evans. “In the experience of many AIM members I know its key findings will ring true. There is a wealth of practical information in the report to help anyone considering making changes to their admission policy – helping us understand much better the impact of our decisions.”

The aim of the research was to understand the experience of museums that have moved from free admission to charging, or vice versa, or to hybrid models, and to investigate pricing strategies and their impact on visitor numbers, diversity, income, visitor satisfaction, and reputation and relationships.

“Those museums that do not charge have highlighted the importance of this policy to their local stakeholders and funders, for example,” said Evans. “Crucially, the report highlights that the diversity of a museum’s audience is not affected by any decision to charge entry or allow free access.”

He said that this kind of informative research-based facts are very important because museums that charge are sometimes seen as providing less benefit to the public than those that allow free entry. “Cost is sometimes understood to be a barrier to access – but the research highlights that this is not the case.”

The research is timely as an increasing number of museums are thinking about introducing admission charges, in response to reductions in local authority funding. However, it also has valuable information for museums considering introducing free admission and for those that already have an admission charge – where the research showed there was usually little impact in terms of visitor number or diversity when prices were increased and a wide range of charging structures, some very innovative, are highlighted.

Case studies

Moving from free to charging

Birmingham Museums Trust introduced charging for its heritage sites in 2011 and found that the response of staff to charging being introduced was critical, with some being positive about charging, and others being apologetic.  The trust worked hard to ensure that the culture was positive about charging, with an emphasis on quality and value for money. More recently, it introduced a charge of £3 for children with no negative comments or drop in numbers. At Thinktank, the introduction of charging for entry to the planetarium reduced queues, and created a sense of exclusivity and extra value, improving visitor experience and raising income.

Moving from charging to free

Elgin Museum moved from charging to free entry in 2013 aiming to make the museum more accessible. The museum arranged corporate sponsorship support to help offset the lost admissions income initially. Visitor numbers almost doubled. The implementation of a pro-active donations strategy (including effective use of donation boxes, building on good practice guidance) helped to offset much of the lost admissions income, which alongside ongoing sponsorship has put the museum in an improved financial situation.  Greater engagement between the museum and the local community was another positive, exemplified through the increase in the numbers of visiting children.

Amending charges

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery amended their admissions charging policy in recent years (letting children go free, removing the concessionary rate, and increasing adult prices). These changes were intended to increase the museum’s appeal to families and children, as well as improve the museum’s financial position. Since the changes, total visitor numbers have increased slightly, and the number of paying visitors has also been sustained. The changes also led to a simplified pricing strategy, which has been of benefit to museum staff/volunteers and visitors as it is easier to understand and communicate. Tenby Museum emphasised the importance of effective communication with both visitors and all other stakeholders when implementing changes to pricing – including strong and effective messaging about the financial position of the museum.

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Key Findings

One in three independent museums allow free entry whilst one in three local authority-operated museums charge for admission.

Whether a museum charges or not has no effect on the diversity of its audience. The social/demographic mix of audiences is very similar in museums, whether they charge or not. 

The ability of museums to attract donations is not enhanced by allowing free entry – other factors are much more important.    

Secondary spend on retail or catering is not reduced by charging admission – other factors such as the quality of the offer have much more influence.  Visitors to museums that charge entry are more likely to visit the shop and café than those visiting free-entry museums.

Dwell time of visitors is longer in museums that charge admission.

There is evidence that charging entry improves the quality of the visitor welcome and enables museums to capture valuable information about audiences. 

Spend in shops and cafes, as well as donations from visitors, are more impacted by other factors than whether a museum charges for admission or not.

All museums report that other factors than charging influence the level of donations received – notably the pro-active approach of the museums to seeking donations.

Visitors who are charged are more likely to visit the shop and café than those at free entry sites.  But other factors influence the level of secondary spend, notably quality.

There is little difference between the quality of visit at paid admission sites and free entry sites, suggesting that charging or not is not a major influence on the overall quality of the visit.