Are free entry museums still a good idea?

It’s ten years since the then Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, introduced free entry to England’s national museums for everyone.  Since then visitor numbers have soared to the extent that 8 out of 10 of the most popular visitor attractions are now government sponsored museums.

I didn’t know this when my family and I recently spent a long weekend in London to visit museums, friends and family.  With a 7 year old boy’s birthday to celebrate the obvious destinations were the Natural History Museum (for the dinosaurs, whales and volcanoes) and the London Transport Museum for, well, the transport. 

dinosaurs here we come!
Dinosaurs here we come!

As a cost conscious parent I was intrigued by the pricing policies of the two museums, both of which had queues out of the door when we visited, one with school parties (NHM) and one with tourists (LTM).

The Natural History Museum is one of these government sponsored museums and has been a separate entity from the British Museum since 1963.  With it’s stunning architecture there is much to see in the different coloured zones and a whole day can be enjoyably frittered away exploring the exhibits.

The free entry pricing policy certainly factored in our decision to visit but probably less than the many dinosaurs who were housed inside.  (The 7 year old is obsessed with dinosaurs, had been previously glued to Planet Dinosaur and had been counting down the sleeps to the visit a month before.) 

Comparing claws at the Natural History Museum
Comparing claws at the Natural History Museum

It’s fair to say we probably would have visited anyway.  However, we certainly bought more concessions because of the free entry fee – we felt well inclined towards the Museum.  Indeed, we parted with our first £5 for the lovely Children’s guide book, which we bought from the attendant who was selling them on the steps, before we even got through the front doors

Of course, most people know that the profit is in the concessions.  We even have an interview question about how to improve the profitability of a cinema, a la Zappos, at Learning Pool.  For the museum, the more concessions they can sell the greater their profit.

And, to be fair, they did it very well.  There were no pushy, overtly commercial overtones to our visit. 

There are four different shops in the museum, all clearly selling different things so you felt compelled to go in for a look just in case there was something you couldn’t miss.

The school parties were well catered for with lots of pocket money priced items for those essential souveniers.

Great staff, especially in the restaurant and food areas (not so good, perhaps, in the dinosaur shop which was overrun with anxious 8 year olds with not enough money)

We even spent over £30 in the Restaurant at the Natural History Museum where otherwise a quick coffee might have sufficed.

But whilst the Dinosaur and Earth zones were stunning, with state of the art exhibits and interactions, the mammal area housing the hugh blue whale is outdated and old fashioned.  It looks the same as when I visited it in my own school days all those years ago.  So presumably not all funding requirements are being met.

Look, this whale's massive!
Look, this whale's massive!

By contrast our trip to the London Transport Museum was a more polished affair.  They seem to have had more investment over the years and, though drastically smaller, the exhibits are much more state of the art throughout.  The stamper stations that formed a route through the museum for the children was a great feature and ensured an enthusiastic commitment to see everything. 

The museum seems to benefit well from major sponsors, all of whom are prominently listed and thanked. Next year’s London Olympics are heavily featured in the shop merchandise and a space reserved for an Olympics related exhibit in the museum. 

The museum shop is very extensive and the essential cafe very pleasant (excellent coffee). 

The entry fee to the museum was, I thought, quite clever.  Despite a fairly hefty charge per adult of £13.50 this ticket is actually an annual pass so all visits for the next 12 months are free (all children get free entry regardless).  I wonder how many visitors actually go back?  Or, as I suspect, are most visitors tourists who, by their nature, probably won’t be returning within the year? 

Our trip to the Transport Museum was made complete by the meandering journey through Covent Garden, past the street artists.  The 7 year old was mesmerised by some of the acts (though not the texting silver lady) and gratifyingly scared enough by the silver Viking to want to keep a safe distance. 

Texting Silver Lady
Texting Silver Lady

They were all good value though, especially the Ugly Gold Man who only cost 50p in return for a handshake and a huge smile of delight.  

Priceless.

Golden Man at Covent Garden
Golden Man at Covent Garden
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