There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about Free Museums. Certainly the Dallas Museum of Art and the expansion of their free membership program has been a major factor in driving this conversation. Of course Free Museums is not a new discussion. Elaine Gurian’s important piece, Free at Last first appeared in Museum News in 2005.
I remember that the article focused on issues such as equality, access and economic factors. Two aspects that surprised me were:
1. Admissions generally do not contribute to a major portion of a museum’s operating budget.
2. Paying for a service does generate a greater sense of worth for the visitor.
So with this expanding conversation, my query is: Can Free Museums work in Hong Kong?
Law Uk Folk Museum
There are many museums in Hong Kong that cover topics such as art, science, history and culture. There are also a number of museums that have specialized topics such as trains. And in addition to the typical gallery set-up, there are also historic house museums, outdoor gardens and a zoo.
A vast majority of these institutions are government run. They are operated through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). LCSD offers a family pass for HK$200 ($25 USD) that entitles up to four family members free access to all LCSD museum for a period of one year. Individuals can also pay $HK10 for an individual day pass. As they like to say in Hong Kong, “that is value for money.”
The hand full of remaining museums that are independently operated mostly charge between HK$10 and $30.
Even on the high end of HK$30, the admission charge is a nominal fee that most people can afford.
With such a nominal fees do these tickets make a difference?
Hong Kong Free Port
I recently attended a lecture in which the discussion was about Hong Kong’s lucrative antiques art market. The lecturer, Dr. Leo Goodstadt, a longtime Hong Kong resident and well-respected leader in the arts field, argued that there are a number of reasons why the art market flourishes. Goodstadt said one of the major factors is that Hong Kong is a free port.
Simply said, because there are relaxed business practices on issues such as taxes and tariffs, companies throughout the centuries gravitate to this small island off China because of its free port status. Today, Hong Kong is the third largest port in the world and controls an Asian art market that is greater than London or New York. Can the same be true for their museums?
Outsider point of view
As an outsider to Hong Kong I often bring a very different sense of perspective to how things in Hong Kong work. Here are two observations that I have made about people and places. I think they directly speak to why free museums make sense.
1. Hong Kong people often incorporate public spaces for their own personal use. One cannot walk around Central on a Sunday without seeing makeshift tents and blankets set up for a temporary refuge in the heart of a busy city. One of my personal favorite examples Public/Private space is the dry seafood merchant in my neighborhood who uses the construction road signs as a place to dry his products.
Seafood drying amongst the road construction
An entrance fee means restricted access. If a person has to pay a fee (even nominal) then they may not feel welcome to use the space. Museums can no longer work see their spaces as a one-use purpose in their community. Public parks in Hong Kong are proof that people are looking for a place for leisure time. Museums can also serve those needs. I would like to highlight the Law Uk Folk Museum. It is beautifully situated in the neighborhood of Chai Wan with a comfortable park right next door. It is a great space that people feel welcome.
2. Hong Kong people are business focused. The customer service is excellent. One of the reasons it is so good is that there is a surplus of employees. It is rare to go into a shop and see only one person on duty. Personal attention is the norm not the exception.
Staff means cost. I question how profitable it is to have a team of people at a museum whose primary responsibility is to sell and take tickets. How many tickets must be sold each day just to replace that person’s salary? Museums are educational institutions, shouldn’t resources be placed there instead.
In a recent conversation I had with a Dallas Museum of Art employee, he told me “participation is the new currency of the museum.” In other words the gate is no longer the most important thing to consider. Museums must begin looking at different ways to measure success. If an organization is allowed to move beyond looking at the bottom-line of assets that tickets sales bring in, it may be able to begin seeing how engaging with their community should be considered a far more important credit tally.
Earned revenue is of course important for museums. I would recommend that institutions look to building these revenue streams around special access, private events, concessions, temporary exhibitions, workshops and lectures. These are the areas where the greatest percentage revenue can occur.
If an institution can engage with its community, then it community’s value will rise. And that is regardless of whether or not the museum charges people for general admission.