Just like the proverbial lunch, museum entry is never free. Whilst the visitor may not necessarily contribute to the cost of their visit, governments, tax payers, sponsors, donors, members and a host of other financial and in kind contributors, all ensure that museums are functional.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones, suggested that the British Museum should indeed implement a fee for foreign tourist groups. Amongst other things, he argues that these tourists are paying (often hefty fees) for tour companies and guides to get to the museum yet not for the museum experience itself.
The reality in England, and also in my native Australia, is that a large number of museums are government operated and therefore, in part, funded by taxes. Taxes that tourists don’t pay. I agree with Jones, if you can afford to travel abroad, you can afford a museum entry fee.
Unfortunately, when you are dealing with people, such logic is not so simple. Museums run the risk that their venue will be replaced in the tour operators’ schedules by another free landmark, or visitors, aware that they have paid entry, may refrain from making donations or purchasing items in the gift shop. Research would need to be done to determine such an impact.
There will always be the museum enthusiast, like me, who will visit at least some museums whilst travelling and pay the required entry fees. On the other hand, it could be argued that charging admission fees contradicts museums attempts to be more inclusive and deters fence sitting visitors from walking through the door. Not only does recent research contradict the idea that cost the biggest deterrent to museum visitation, there are ways to reduce or avoid paying entry. Here in Boston, many museums provide opportunities to visit museums for free or at a heavily reduced price at certain times of the week or month. For example, entry to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) on Wednesday is to pay what you wish and the Harvard Art Museums offers free entry to Cantabrigians on Saturday mornings. Whilst the MFA is busy on a Wednesday, in my experience, it is certainly well frequented at other times too.
Ultimately, as Jones states, it would be great if museum entry were free, to everyone, all of the time, but that is not viable in protecting these great institutions in the current political climate. The money to run ‘free’ museums must come from somewhere, and the sheer number of volunteers in museums around the world shows that museums are not a thriving financial enterprise. It will be interesting to follow the British Museum and observe the impact of tourist entrance fees, if any, on visitation, reputation and other forms of income such as donations.