Why don’t they come? Visitors on low income and the myths around admission price

On October 5th, 2017, posted in: new post by

Yesterday, Tony Butler, the Executive Director of the Derby Museums sent out this tweet from Visitor Attraction Conference as an interesting provocation.

Beamish is a brilliant living history museum in the North East of the UK. Disappointingly, I’m not at the conference so I don’t quite know the context. Yet I feel the need to respond to Tony’s provovation. Firstly, because this is a topic that sits close to my heart. I’m from a low income family. My family rarely visited museums, galleries or heritage sites and therefore they were, for me, until I started working with them 12 years ago, incredibly intimidating. I felt like, and to some extent still do feel like, a complete imposter. In fact, it’s possibly why I do the work that I do. Now I understand both the value and the mechanic of cultural organisations, I want to give more people access to these important experiences and to some extent, address the things that continue to act as barriers for me.

By Darren Wilkinson from Chester-le-Street, England (Horse and carriage) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Horse bus 285, Beamish Museum, 11 September 2011 (3) By Darren Wilkinson from Chester-le-Street, England (Horse and carriage) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The second reason I wanted to respond is because I’m both pleased and proud that we’ve recently been working on a series of research and design projects that are about improving the experience of first time visitors who have little or no connection to the subject matter. In some instances this has been with people who have actually walked through the door and others have been those who have never done so. Many of the people we’ve spoken to have been from lower income groups. This has all been design research as part of our Human-Centred Design process, so most of it is based on qualitative research — observed, recorded or narrated visits, interviews and activities –recruited on a quantitative base. All captured with the idea of designing solutions that meet the real needs. So I’m afraid no numbers — but my own insights and observations. However, the brilliant Colleen Dilenschneider over at Know Your Own Bone has lots of great data that demonstrates that Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation

So, back to Tony’s question. Why do more people with on low income choose a paid experience over a paid experience. The fundamental misconception within the sector has been that providing low-cost/free experiences means that you will be accessible to everyone. This is lazy thinking and completely misunderstands how people think about money. It suggests that if you’re on a low income you don’t spend on things you find valuable.

When you’re on a low income and it comes to your time off, you value “a guaranteed good/fun day out”. You want something that is entertaining, relevant and unique to you and the group you’re visiting with — you need to know what you’re getting. This is why an IMAX, amusement arcade and amusement park have no shortage of people who are spending a high percentage of their monthly income on something that will give them a few hours of pleasure. I have family members who would be considered ‘low income’ and saved up for a trip to Disneyland because they want to experience Disneyland.
I’m neither encouraging nor advocating for Museums to become like Disneyland, but imagine creating an experience so compelling, that people would save money to attend and then imagine you give it away for free.

A guarantee of a good day out

If you have less money to spend on days out which means you have fewer opportunities to experiment. You might only do something on special occasions. This makes you more risk averse and means you will naturally try to establish if something is going to meet your needs of being a “guaranteed, fun, unique day out.” Cultural organisations tend to hide the experience and focus on the objects. Disneyland, IMAX, amusement parks communicate the emotion you will feel when you attend.

Easy to access, easy to understand, easy to use.

If you rarely visit cultural organisations, there’s a strong possibility that you have a less broad understanding of the topic or subject matter than frequent visitors. Cultural Organisations seem frustrated that people keep going back to the “famous” stuff or the “easy” stuff; the things that are constantly easily to seek out and therefore are not promoted because “everyone knows they are there”. But the truth is they don’t. But these famous, relevant things are the hooks that a novice audience will connect with. They provide familiarity and comfort. They come with a story you already know.
An infrequent visitor has less experience of navigating the interface of an organisation to find these familiar things they can connect with and are likely to be unaware of the “tools and programmes” designed to help them. Not everyone knows to go to the information desk to get the family pack OR that there is a free tour twice a day. You don’t know what there is to see or do unless someone has been super-clear about it.
Finally, the rules of engagement rarely made completely explicit in museums.
Spending a day second-guessing an opaque set of unwritten rules is not fun. It means you don’t know whether you’ll have choices or what the choices will be. Will you be forced to stand at look at things you’re not interested in or will you have to do lots of reading? And one particular example that I’ve seen, you may not be able to identify which bits are free or not. So, if you come to a free experience are you going to wander into something that you suddenly have to pay for? And this leads into…

Pricing is clear and easy to understand

Price is a barrier to coming because it makes something look riskier.

The people who are on low-income, that I have spoken to, talk about how they like free stuff. But, there’s a flip side; they also value things more when they pay for them. The cost can often denote perceived quality or luxury. And, if this is your valuable entertainment-time, you might want quality and luxury because it suggests a “guaranteed good and fun day”. The assumption is that nothing fancy is cheap or free so why waste precious time or money getting somewhere only to find that it doesn’t deliver.

As a sector, there is an obsession with communicating quality and perfection but also doesn’t shout from the rafters that they provide any kind of free offer are basically hitting themselves with the door on the way out. When you aren’t familiar with cultural organisations you might see a museum/gallery as high quality and therefore assume it must be expensive. Reinforced by focusing marketing spend on the PAID exhibition and not the FREE permanent collection.

We all see the risks

These needs and perceptions of risk aren’t unique to people on low incomes, they are shared with many first time visitors and/or those who are new to a museum’s subject matter. But, having less money that to spend on “entertainment” means that people on low incomes are more likely to be affected by the barriers — the risk feels bigger and the experience more like hard work.

When I look at Beamish — I see that they are working hard on all of these things. I’m sure there are other reasons why they attract more people from lower income groups “despite costing £20 to get in” it’s because they communicate their value well, they focus on the experience and they promote narratives that connect with people recognise many of the topics.

I’m sharing these insights because they are so important to removing this perception that making things free will mean that everyone feels welcome. I’ll be talking more about this and some of the digital services we designed with the team at the National Gallery at MCN in PittsburghWe’ve written a lot about the process of the project on our blog.

Some further reading can be found here:
Changing Values in the Art Museum: rethinking communication and learning
In changing times older art-museum values are coming under challenge and new emphasis is being placed on museum…www.tandfonline.com
While working on some of these projects a great article from Seema Rao popped into my timeline. Crossing over with the idea of experience and what can be delivered using a permanent collection it continues to feed my brain.
Peter Samis, Visual Velcro: Hooking Our Visitors Where They Are*

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