Pop quiz: How much does it cost to go a museum? And I don’t mean cost in a global bottom line sense—I mean how much does it cost to walk up to the admissions desk and buy a ticket? How much for a family? How much for a student? How much for an adult?
The answer, of course, is that it varies. Museums can range from free to about $30 for admission. There are secondary admissions fees, like parking, and optional fees, like for IMAX shows, traveling exhibits, and other add-ons. It’s often confusing to wade through the choices: do I want the underwater pony show or the artist-led splatter tour? But even more than this confusion, I believe museums suffer from a lack of consistent expectations when it comes to price and purchase options.
On face value, confusion looks like the main culprit. And yet movie theaters, restaurants, and carnivals are all masters of multiple options and combo tickets. No one runs out of a restaurant overwhelmed by the volume of choices and potential meal combinations. It is possible to offer a menu of options—with varying prices, durations, and content—without scaring people off.
So why can’t museums do it? I’d argue that it’s because museums, unlike these other experience providers, are inconsistent. There’s a difference between offering many options and offering a consistent experience. There are no free items on a restaurant menu. There are small items (with small prices) and large items (with bigger prices). But in museums, sometimes the large items (general admission) are free and the small items (traveling exhibits) are expensive. Sometimes it’s the other way around. In short, the museum menu is inconsistent, and therefore confusing.
Why is inconsistency the culprit? Because people don’t have a clear concept of how much their museum outing might cost. When I go to the movies, I’m not surprised by the price of tickets. I know the popcorn will be overpriced and that I can get a better deal at 2pm than at 8. There’s consistency to the price experience of movies—they probably cost about the same in your town ($9-12) as they do in mine. When I go to the movies, I can look in my wallet and know what I’m in for.
But imagine if movie theaters operated like museums. Suddenly, the theater in your town is free, whereas mine costs $20 to enter. Hers gives you admission to two movies at once, and his gives you a discount on a second movie when you buy a ticket to the first. In this scenario, the consistency of movie prices is in doubt—and with that price confusion comes confusion about value. Is the more expensive movie worth more? Is it worth more to see it in the more expensive theater? Or should I hold out to see it for free somewhere else?
Some might argue that this problem is not one of consistency, but of unfamiliarity. More people go to movies and restaurants than to museums, and therefore, perhaps, they have a better understanding of how to deal with menus of options in those environments than in museums. But there are other cultural and recreational activities with similarly small (or smaller) market share in the experience economy which are more consistent than museums price-wise. I’ve never been to the opera, but I have a general concept about how much opera tickets cost. The same goes for skydiving, music concerts, and camping fees. The value of the experiences offered—whether cultural, recreational, or natural—have consistent price expectations associated with them.
Some might also argue that it is precisely this inconsistency, this range of museum prices, that make museums great cultural resources. After all, if all museums cost $10, none would be free and open to the public at large. While I appreciate the desire for free museums (and would potentially prefer all museums to be free), their existence alongside $20 museums makes for muddled expectations. If all museums cost X—whatever X might be—then people could evaluate museum visits alongside other cultural or recreational options more easily. “Let’s go to a museum,” could attain the same universality (price-wise) as “let’s go to the movies.” In some ways, what I’m talking about could be construed as an argument for museums to become a more consistent cultural commodity—which I believe would positively impact both museum prices and their presumed value.
Because the related problem to price inconsistency is value confusion. There’s no question that there are good movies and bad movies, movies made for a dime and others made for millions. And yet there is a general, universally accepted value to the movie-going experience. That value is intrinsically linked to its price, just as the value of a meal in a restaurant is linked to its price.
But what’s the value of a museum experience? And is the value of a $20 museum experience directly relatable to that of a $5 one? Why are we asking our visitors to make these complex determinations?
Interestingly, direct museum competitors, like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Madame Tussaud’s, have pretty stable price consistency. They value the experience they offer at about $30. I wouldn’t be surprised if the public catches on to the consistent price of these “edutainment” venues and responds positively to their consistency by visiting several such institutions.
Ultimately, that’s a great potential side effect of consistency—that providing consistently valued (and priced) museum experiences promotes museum-going in general. Maybe there’s an option, like in restaurants or theaters, for different museums to convey different levels of experience (with commensurate levels of price). There could be fast food quickie museums and long, programmatically rich ones. Or, maybe we should consider a “one price fits most” model. It might change people’s perceptions of museum experiences as highly differentiated and encourage people to visit museums more broadly and generally. If I liked that $10 museum, maybe I’ll also like this one. Let me know what you think. I’ll be at the matinee.