Reflections on Museums 2: What Museums Cost Visitors—and Lessons for Information Architects and Information Designers

This is the second of four posts from 2010 that explore issues in designing for learning in museums and that I am re-publishing on this new blog about museums.

Although individual museums may wonder what to charge visitors, and some museum organizations consider the issue, for the vast majority of visitors, we primarily consider the issue on a case-by-case basis. That is, we decide to visit a museum and, when we learn about the admission fee, we decide whether or not to pay it.

Admittedly, I haven’t looked for it, but I can’t say that I’ve seen much widespread discussion of the cost of museum visits. Although most tour books include admission costs in their descriptions of museums, most reviews do not. Nor have my museum reviews mentioned admission costs.

But the issue of cost quickly went top of mind when I began my marathon of museum visits this winter. After visiting nearly 30 museums in as many days, museum admission costs admittedly became a daily issue. In this post, I explore these costs—then relate the implications to information designers and information architects.

Basic Admission Fees Are Competitive within Their Markets

And in the process of facing it that frequently, I quickly observed that, although admission fees would vary among specific institutions, basic admission fees in a community were remarkably similar. For example, in Paris, museum admissions typically ran between 8 and 10 euros; in Spain, admissions were slightly lower–6 and 9 euros.

That said, museum admissions in Europe seem remarkably similar to those in Canada, but significantly higher than many museums in the U.S., as many American museums do not charge admission (like the Smithsonian) or only charge admissions to special exhibitions (like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

Discounts Aren’t Easy to Come by

Of course, being the tightwad that I am, I’m always looking for a discount. So I paid attention to some of the discounts on offer:

  • People who receive public assistance can, in some countries, receive reduced or free admission.
  • Student discounts are really young people discounts. Most are restricted to students under the age of 30, even if the person can produce documentation verifying that he or she is a full-time student. Given the focus on mature students and the fact that many of them would benefit from museum visits but have foregone income for a year, this age limit is both arbitrary and discriminatory; it should really be named “Traditional student discount.”

Furthermore, some student discounts are limited to students studying within the country, as is the situation in France, Germany, and Turkey. Although this is discriminatory, it is a bit more understandable, as visits to state-sponsored museum s are an extension of state-sponsored educations. Students studying in other states are not sponsored. It’s not nice, but it’s a bit more understandable.

  • Teacher discounts are, available on an even more limited basis. Spain is the most generous with its discounts; most Spanish museums offered me free admission when I showed my faculty identification. Otherwise, only one other museum offered complimentary admission to teachers: the Jewish Museum of Paris. All of the museums offering complimentary admission did not ask what I taught or at what level.
  • Membership in a national museum association only works within the country. For example, I am a member of the Canadian Association of Museums. One of the benefits is complimentary admission to museums throughout Canada. When I was a member of the American Association of Museums, that membership card often worked in Canada, but as the Canadian association strengthened, that happened less frequently.

An international museum association exists, called ICOM. A benefit of membership in that organization is complimentary admissions throughout the world. Figuring out how to become a member, however, is another story.

Museum Passes Are Often a Deal Worth Passing On

To mitigate museum admission costs, my partner and I explored museum passes. These are tickets that are good for a large number of museums for a limited number of days. To be honest, consumers need to be cautious about these. In some instances, they can be a good deal but, in others, they could actually wind up increasing admissions expenses. For example, we bought passes in Berlin but did not buy them in Paris.

When deciding whether or not to purchase a pass, consumers first need to consider which museums they want to visit, then check the list covered by the pass. If the pass does not cover some of the museums on the list, then its value is reduced.

Next, consumers need to figure out how many of those museums they might visit during the time period covered by the pass. Visitors can typically visit just 1 or 2 museums per day; perhaps even fewer when trying to discover massive museums like the Louvre.

Last, consumers need to figure out the actual admission costs of the museum. In our case, at a rate of about 1.5 museum s per day, we paid less by paying individual admissions (even without discounts) rather than paying for the pass. I reached the same conclusion a year earlier with the New York Museum pass, which is promoted by the same company as the Parisian pass.

In contrast, we saved money with the Berlin Museum Pass. (Not surprisingly, the pass appears to be promoted by a different organization than the Parisian and New York passes.) Its cost was about that of three museums and we visited 5 on the pass. But the pass did not cover every museum we wanted to visit, such as the commercial DDR Museum and Story of Berlin, and one historic church. We found that, as a result of purchasing the pass, we actually selected museums based on whether or not they were included on the pass.

What Does this Mean to Information Architects and Information Designers

On the surface, museums and websites are unrelated phenomena. After all, museums are cultural institutions that exist in three dimensions; websites are informational and educational institutions that exist in two dimensions.

But, as a great speaker (whose name escapes me right now) once observed, sometimes the best ideas come from non-competitors. And as websites struggle with the challenge of generating revenue from users, information architects and information designers might learn a few lessons from museums.

The ability to charge for content seems to have some contextual basis. That is, museums in Europe and Canada, have similar admissions fees, and are able to charge across the board. In contrast, museums in many American markets do not charge admission fees, perhaps making it harder for other museums in their markets to charge anything other than nominal admission fees.

In other words, market conditions might determine whether a website can charge users a general entrance fee. In markets where most competitors do not charge fees, only a concerted action by all will change the rates. Airlines have tried this with only mixed results; when several airlines raise fares, often one will not, to skim off the rest of the business from price-conscious consumers.

When basic fees are constrained by market conditions, a la carte fees offer an alternative. For example, although many American museums do not charge a basic admission fee, they do charge fees to see special exhibitions. These fees are often as high as, if not higher than, regular admission fees to comparable museums in other markets. For example, special exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art require separately purchased tickets.

But the practice is not limited to American museums that do not charge a basic admission fee. The Prado in Madrid, for example, had a general admission fee and separate fees for special exhibitions.

Information architects and designers might consider this as an alternate approach; providing access to some content either for free or for a lower general price, and providing access to other content only after purchasing a “special ticket.” Generally, most professional associations adopt this model, providing some general information about the profession for free, but providing articles, research studies, and similar intellectual property only to paying members.

Memberships offer benefits to both parties. For people who want to frequently visit a particular museum, or merely want to show their support, they can become a “member” of the museum. All levels of membership offer free admission to the general collection and special exhibitions (though they might limit visits to special exhibitions). More costly memberships provide additional privileges, such as invitations to exhibition openings. For those who have income limitations, like students, seniors, and families, special prices make membership affordable.

Information architects and designers might also consider such approaches to charging for their websites; a one-time visit fee (like a one-time admission fee to a museum) as well as memberships for frequent visitors and supporters. Similarly, information architects and information designers might consider offering different levels of membership with different levels of access to information, as well as discounted memberships for groups who have limited incomes.

In some ways, this resembles the approach to websites taken by professional associations, except theirs is an all-or-nothing approach. This approach might work better with magazines and other subscription materials, as they can charge for one issue (as some are starting to do for the iPad) and general subscriptions.

When several related websites want to reach the same groups of users, they might collaborate with passes. As the museums of Berlin, New York, and Paris collaborated to offer a single pass that provides admission to several museums, so information architects and information designers who work with several websites trying to reach the same group of users might collaborate with one another by offering a “ticket” that lets users visit all of the sites for a period of time by using a single pass. This is an idea that is being considered by the community that publishes online periodicals; news reports suggest that they are considering subscriptions that provide access to several publications at once (much like cable companies offer “packages” of specialty stations). When creating such passes involves several publishers, the challenges are admittedly daunting, as participants need to determine what to charge, how much access to provide, and how to divide the revenue—among other questions.

And how should websites deal with “donations” of content (also known as user-generated content)? On the one hand, user-generated content—that is, tips, insights, ideas, and similar information that users contribute to the website, appears to be a gift. On the other hand, whenever anyone can contribute to the site, usually anyone does—including people trying to advertise professional services (without paying for the privilege), sell reliable and dubious products (once again, without paying for the privilege) and people offering advice who, in reality, have a stronger need for it. Museums face similar challenges; people want to donate items that may or may not relate to their collections and, even if they do, might not strengthen that collection. As a result, most museums have acquisitions policies, which govern which artifacts they seek and the conditions under which they accept them. Similarly, many online press outlets as well as specialty websites—plagued by flaming or irrelevant posts—have increasingly adopted policies regarding these “gifts” of content, limiting them to registered users whose identities they can always track. In some instances, contributors may need to join the website (at a fee) to continue receiving the privilege of contributing.

What does this mean? As information architects and information designers struggle with the challenges of which content to provide for free and which for a fee, and whether to allow the general public to contribute comments or only registered users, we might look to museums for models of how to approach these challenges and adapt them to our needs: general admission fees, a la carte fees, membership, passes, and gift privileges.

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