I’ve heard a fair number of museum people say something like, “visitors will pay $18 to see a two hour movie, but they won’t pay the same for a day-long, life-changing experience at the museum.”
If I’m honest, I’ve never understood why museum people always seem to a) be surprised at this and b) think their museum is life-changing. I’ve also wondered if money is really the barrier we think it is.
The director at the small New England museum I was working at had an interesting theory about this. We didn’t charge an admission fee. Instead, there was a donation basket at the end of the tour. Her feeling was that the amount put into the basket was generally an accurate a reflection of the guest’s enjoyment and satisfaction.
She added that small museums have an image problem of sorts. Unlike the big places that are somewhat consistent, small museums are a very mixed bag. Visitors don’t know what to expect or what kind of service they’ll get. Instead of making them pay for an unknown, she felt we should earn the money by providing a great experience.
How immediate. How simple. So how well does it work?
My next job was at a small county-run historic site. We were also free (your tax dollars at work), and also had a donation basket at the end of the tour.(1) The idea that the better the experience provided, the better the donation seemed to be true. Yes, there were people who paid only the “suggested” donation, but many offered more. There was something of an unofficial and friendly competition amongst the staff to see who could earn more per tour.
Putting the donation at the end of the experience helped raise the bar of our tours. However, it did nothing to increase our visitor count. Which brings up an interesting question: if money is a barrier, and we were free, shouldn’t people have been flocking to the site?
They weren’t. Our visitation, like so many historic sites recently, saw visitation highs in the 1990s and then level off and decline since then.
This suggests it’s not money that’s the barrier. Could it be that our story, our interpretation, or our programming wasn’t engaging enough to them?
We never knew. There were never resources for market research to ask people who weren’t at the site why they weren’t coming. The most commonly given reason (unscientifically collected) for why they were coming was that they had passed our large sign on a local pike for years and that day they finally had a moment to stop in.
So maybe the visitors know something we don’t about ticket pricing – that they go to what’s appealing them, avoid what’s not, and money is not necessarily the reason.
- It had a sign saying “Donations gleefully accepted.”