Charging Admission to Museums during this Pandemic: A Discussion

August 13, 2020

As some museums are either considering or planning to reopen their doors, there is some discussion about charging admission to visit both virtually and in-person. The pandemic has caused numerous financial hardships for many people, museums, nonprofits, theaters, stores, et. cetera. Museums charging admission is not a new topic in the field, but it has especially been relevant within the last months as museums consider re-opening their doors. In order to figure out how to keep museums running financially, museum professionals have been talking about whether or not to charge admission for some virtual experiences.

A conclusive answer for all museums would be hard to reach since each museum have their own budgets and their own limitations, and the pandemic created even more limitations for museums. In the blog post I wrote a couple of years ago What We Can Do About Admission Fees to Our Museums? I pointed out that

Many museums have different admission policies based on their operation budgets and funding they may or may not receive from donors and sometimes the government. The decision on what the admission prices to museums is not an easy one to make. Many museum professionals and visitors debate over what would be an appropriate amount to pay admission to museums.

With the pandemic continuing to financially effect museums among other recreational, educational, and businesses, the previous statement I made in that post is still true now but with more things to consider. It is not only museums, schools, businesses, et. cetera that are struggling but families and individuals are also struggling, and for many spending money on trips to museums (that have re-opened their physical sites to certain extents) is not a priority.

Museums are considering varying options to address the admissions issue. The Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket, New York, for instance, decided on suggested donations for their virtual events. One museum in Germany decided to do an experiment with a different way of charging admissions. In the post shared on the American Alliance of Museums website, they shared information from the experiment by the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art in Bremen, Germany when they decided to change their admission policy to a “pay as you stay” model; there were two test phases that occurred in December 2019 and March 2020 when visitors paid one Euro per ten minutes, and in their results they revealed that while changing the admission to exist prices was a challenge the efforts had exceeded their expectations. Some of their findings include

The results of our experiment show that this pricing approach, which so far only existed in theory, not only worked in museum practice, but produced positive results. We must, of course, gather more data to understand the effects better, and it is in no way obvious that the system would work in other museums. It is also unclear what the effects would be in the long run. Available studies suggest that prices are rarely the decisive factor in the decision about whether or not to visit the arts, at least in Europe. We must also assume that the promotional effects wear off over time. But even if it is only a minor contribution – if a novel pricing model such as this can support our mission to be accessible, visitor oriented and open to new audiences, we should not leave this stone unturned.

When I read the article, I thought that “pay as you stay” model is an interesting option that museum professionals should examine to see if it would work for their museums. Since the United States especially has many museums of varying types, sizes (physical and budget), et. cetera, one model would not work for all of them. Colleen Dilenschneider released some information on her study on admissions to cultural institutions in the post Still Worth It? Admission Cost During the Pandemic for Cultural Entities (DATA). In the post, Dilenschneider pointed out a few things, including but not limited to, that people believe cultural entities are not less worthy of admission costs and that leaders should take a thoughtful approach to the decisions that need to be made about admissions rather than a reactive action. She also described value-for-cost perceptions which is a metric to help professionals understand how much perceptual value derived from an experience relative to its admission price unique to their institutions. For instance, the data informs three conditions as perceptions are being examined keeping data factors in mind:

Value of 100 = Optimally priced. This is the goal! This value means that the organization is priced and perceived such that the cost is not a significant barrier to engagement… while also not leaving money on the table!

Value less than 100 = Value disadvantaged. The lower the value, the proportionately greater the potential barrier to attendance the price point poses. For some organizations, this also represents an opportunity to improve the experience so it’s perceived as more worthy of one’s time and money.

Value greater than 100 = Value advantaged. The higher the value, the more money the organization proportionately risks “leaving on the table.” People would pay more for this experience without it jeopardizing attendance numbers.

In the end, the decision to charge admission is what all museums face but factors such as budgets and funding influences their decision to charge or not charge admission.

I recommend taking a closer look at the resources I mentioned in the list below.

What are your views on admissions to museums, cultural institutions, et. cetera during this pandemic (either virtually, in-person, or a hybrid)?


“Pay As You Stay” – an alternative pricing model for museums?

What Can We Do About Admission Fees to Our Museums?

Three Village Historical Society

Still Worth It? Admission Cost During the Pandemic for Cultural Entities (DATA)

How Museums Can Generate Revenue Through Digital Content and Virtual Experiences

What Can We Do About Admission Fees to Our Museums?

Added to Medium, January 11, 2018

In the 1970s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art developed an admissions policy that allowed all visitors could pay what they wished or what they were able. However, according to National Public Radio, beginning March 1st adults who live outside New York state and who are out of school will have to pay $25 to enter the museum; seniors will pay $17, students outside the tri-state area will pay $12, and children under 12 will still enter for free.

Since The Met’s Admission policy change was announced, the museum community has talked about the debate on admission rates for museums. When I heard about the change in the admissions policy, I had mixed reactions to the news. On the one hand there is a risk of alienating potential visitors from having access to museum’s exhibits and programs, and on the other hand I understand that securing funding for museums is never easy.

It has been a week since the announcement was made, and I read a number of articles as well as blog posts about it. Also, I participated in a discussion with other museum professionals in the field. After reading about and discussing this announcement, I do have mixed feelings on it still but, like everyone else discussing it, it made me think more about the admission fee issue and about my experiences dealing with admission policies. As a museum professional, I have heard so many visitors opinions on admission fees being too high and too low.

Many museums have different admission policies based on their operation budgets and funding they may or may not receive from donors and sometimes the government. The decision on what the admission prices to museums is not an easy one to make. Many museum professionals and visitors debate over what would be an appropriate amount to pay admission to museums.

Seema Rao stated on her website Brilliant Idea Studio in her blog “Let them Eat Cake (Instead of Visiting the Met): The Problems with the Metropolitan Museum’s Ticket Fee” her thoughts on the Met’s change in the admission policy. One of the points she stated about the issues it raises for her was on a museum’s value vs. cost; she described three types of museum visitors and pointed out that museums need to understand that fees mean different things to different people.

Last week I participated in the MuseumEdChat discussion where we talked about admission fees for museums. For those not familiar with MuseumEdChat, it is a group discussion that takes place on Thursdays on Twitter. The moderator asked participants questions based on the admission fees topic.

One of the questions asked was: What are your thoughts about ticket fees? I responded with,

A1 1/2 I think it depends on the museum because each museum has different budgets, and amounts of revenues. Some museums depend heavily on admission sales and others depend on admission sales a little less since they may have more assistance from grants #MuseumEdChat
A1 2/2 It is hard to tell all museums to stop ticket sales since no museum is exactly the same as another. #museumedchat

I was asked if there are factors that help the museum make the ideal decision on ticket fees. In response I stated that,

Museum professionals should collaborate with their financial department colleagues to look at current/past records and the trends between increases/decreases in ticket fees. If we know where we came from financially, it would be simpler to know how we can proceed #museumedchat

It is important for colleagues to collaborate with one another to keep the museum fulfilling its mission. Museum departments can learn how to help their museum function by learning about finances from their financial departments or from other resources if there is no financial department. We would have a better understanding of how museums function by learning about grants, fundraisers, income reports, et. al.

Another question that was asked during the MuseumEdChat was: What is the ideal role of education in fundraising? During the conversation I pointed out that

Education can show the responses and reactions of both staff and visitors who participate in museum programs. By sharing these responses/reactions, we can make an argument on how funding is significant in running a program (time and supplies for example) #museumedchat

When I was at the Long Island Museum, I and the rest of the education department gave a presentation to the Board about the programs that have occurred and ones that were coming up. We shared results of participants reactions, and the statistics of how many people have attended the programs and the amount of revenue each program generated. By giving a presentation to a Board of Directors and donors in a meeting or fundraiser, education departments have the opportunity to show how their programs benefit the museum. The Met was not the only museum that is looking into changing its admission fees.

Other museums have also considered changing their admission prices as well. The Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago History Museum, for instance, are seeking approval from the Chicago Park District for admission-fee increases. Both of the museums are asking the Park District Board to vote on raising general admission fees effective on February 1st to help offset increased costs in building maintenance and operations.

In the end, the debate over admission policies are not easy to come to a conclusion on this subject. Museum professionals should keep in mind all aspects of funding, including admission fees.

What was your reaction to the Met’s change in admission policy? How do you feel about museum admission fees?

Resources to What I Referenced and Read on the Admission Fee: