Friday, May 08, 2009

Coin-Operated Content: Is Pay to Play Really Such a Bad Idea?


Recently, I've become obsessed with the work of Tim Hunkin, an eccentric British inventor/exhibit designer/wacky science art guy who runs a "mad arcade" of coin-operated installations in Suffolk.

In 2007, Tim wrote an article called "In Praise of Coin-Operated Machines" in which he argues that coin-operated devices are a superior way to present exhibit-like content. He points out that coin operation:
  • encourages visitors to make an "investment" in their selections and incentivizes them to really pay attention to the experience so they can "get their money's worth."
  • lowers the number of users who just bang on the things, thus reducing maintenance costs and enabling more risky interactive design.
  • helps facility managers maintain and track the usage and popularity of different exhibits.
  • allows artists and inventors to supply their work directly to users rather than going through time-consuming and copyright-swallowing middlemen.
  • changes the perception of who "owns" art. Pop in your quarter, and you become the short-term owner of the experience.
I've wondered for a long time about the potential for museums (especially interactive science centers) to operate on a "pay to play" model where visitors choose specific content of interest to invest their time and money into. This already happens in the case of standalone shows, theaters, and programmatic experiences, but I don't know of any museums that apply atomized fee structures to physical exhibits. It makes sense to me that in a large museum with way more stuff than you could possibly consume in one visit, you might want to pay for certain experiences but not for the whole shebang. In addition to Tim's arguments, there is the growing cultural expectation that people can purchase atomized content--the single song or application or article of interest. In the world of micro-transactions and on-demand content, the coin-operated model becomes even more relevant to the way visitors want to consume experiences.

So why haven't we seen museums that operate like arcades? The basic argument against the coin-operated admissions model is that "pay to play" induces a crass means test that makes the museum more accessible to those with more money, and that museums should not be putting parents under pressure to keep spending unlimited amounts of money to satisfy their childrens' interests. Also, the idea of visitors only selecting and accessing only a few exhibits is unsatisfactory given the attitude that the entire museum offers value and should be accessible to every visitor.

I'm skeptical of these arguments. Museums already have a means test--it happens in the lobby when you buy your ticket. Elaine Gurian has written convincingly about the threshold fear that would-be visitors encounter when they enter museums, and the often cloudy and stressful calculus families do to decide whether the museum experience will be "worth" the admission rate. I'm not sure what the difference is between a means test that happens continually throughout the institution and one that just happens at the gate. On the one hand, a person or family could choose to cheaply use just a bit of the museum. On the other, they may feel publicly discriminated against each time an exhibit asks for another token.

My feeling is that for people who already visit museums, for whom the means test of an admission ticket is well-understood, a pay to play model would be a convenient way to support visits of variable length and motivation. If the institution were free to enter but using various exhibits cost money, museums might become more accessible overall to a wider audience of people who like being in the space but choose not to or are not able to pay to play. Teenagers who can't afford to buy anything substantial hang out in the mall all the time. Why not in a museum? Why not spend that extra dollar to have a bit of science or art instead of a gumball?

The nice thing about coin-operated arcades is that it's not as if the experiences are entirely inaccessible to people who don't pay. The venue is not gated, and the experience is open to browsers and hangers-on. There's a heavy social spectator experience that is immersive and multi-sensory. You can walk in, get a feel for the place, watch how the different games work and see what kinds of experiences they offer their users, and then decide--judiciously one day, extravagantly the next--where to put your money.

I'm mostly convinced that museums should be free. But I also love Tim's argument about coin-operation and attention. If I have to vote with my wallet, I really get invested. I can imagine walking into a gallery in an art museum that looks like a peep show, looking at a brochure of digital images and having to decide which curtain I want to pay to remove for a minute. I imagine caring a lot more about how I choose that piece of art, how I enter that art experience. I imagine owning that experience. I imagine my minute being up and having to decide whether I want to insert another dollar to continue gazing or move on. I imagine all of these thought processes as being rich, engaged ways that I might connect more deeply with exhibit content.

But I also imagine stopping at some point, probably before I've seen as much as I typically do when I visit a museum. Maybe that would be a good thing because I'd have a more focused museum experience. Or maybe I wouldn't make the right decisions, seduced by attractive fluff, and would be disappointed by the overall experience.

What do you think? Are coin-operated exhibits a bad idea?

18 comments, add yours!:

Ruth Cuadra said...

Nina, this is an interesting idea and one who's time may have come given the cutbacks in museum budgets everywhere. But the idea of paying for museum-related on an individual basis once you're in the museum rubs me the wrong way. That said, I can imagine a scheme in which there are levels of admission prices that entitle you to more and more tokens for the pay-to-use features. Forcing people to focus on what's being offered in order to decide how to spend their tokens is not a bad thing, but I would hate to be the parent of multiple kids, all wanting their turn with the same interactive and eating up the family's opportunity to see more stuff.

Roadmap Blogger said...

It might be worth noting that this business model is taking the online games / virtual worlds / MMO industry by storm. Many of the worlds online game companies now make all of their games "Free to Play with Micro-transactions."

You get a certain level of access for free, and then either have to become a subscriber or, more commonly for audiences above 13, pay microtransactions for incremental add-ons (another level of the game, an in-world tool to help you succeed, a virtual good that makes your character look cool).

Evidence suggests that in most cases one can get about as many $ per paying player on average, but you end up with more paying players - i.e. you make more money this way. That's largely because no one has to make the "do I pay for this?" decision without being able to try it out for a while.

This has long made me think - and you may have pointed out in the past - that museums might convert more visitors if they, say, had their permanent collection available for free and charged for their temporary exhibits, or at least put more free content out on the sidewalk.

Mia said...

@Roadmap Blogger - museums in the UK do exactly that - permanent galleries are free, and some special exhibitions are charged.

You could keep the engagement/metrics and take out the means test by giving each visitor a certain number of tokens regardless of any entry price.

CreativeMerc said...

As my dear ol' grandad was fond of saying, "Pull the other one -- it's got bells on."Seriously, Nina, this is just another thought piece, right? You're not really suggesting that museums could/would apply such a model? Yes, as Mia points out, museums in the UK--as well as in the US--already have a modified version of this in which people receive something for free (or for a base price) and have to pay more for a special exhibition. But do we really want to take it any further?

You point out that "Teenagers who can't afford to buy anything substantial hang out in the mall all the time. Why not in a museum? Why not spend that extra dollar to have a bit of science or art instead of a gumball?" Well, if these hypothetical teenagers of yours are anything like me, they get the gumball and chew it for six minutes until the flavor disappears. The gumball isn't lasting and isn't a memorable source of enjoyment. In fact, it may even remind me to stop getting gumballs at the mall.

But gumballs aren't art. And neither are peep shows, which also get mentioned. Which is going to be more popular: a peep show where you have to pay to see the goods or a strip club with no cover? I don't think the person hitting the free strip club is getting anything less out of the experience because they're not forking over a stack of singles. I wonder if fewer people would turn up at Mardi Gras and Lake Havasu every year if they were pay-to-play experiences.

And I haven't even touched upon the elimination of serendipity such a plan would cause. Haven't you ever been to an art museum to see one thing and then have your mind blown by something else entirely? Well, you can forget it now. Oh, you mention that there is a "heavy social spectator experience" involved, but I feel that's entirely debatable depending on your concepts of social space and propriety. I cannot tell you how annoying it is to have some mouthbreather hover conspicuously as I'm trying to master the Tiger Saw on Theatre of Magic when I'm down at Ground Kontrol. Likewise, I always respect the space of others; their game experience is their game experience.

I vote for open, exposed art. Yes, certainly, some museums must charge admission for one or more (usually) defensible reasons. But your proposal seems incongruous and ironically antithetical to the cries of "Bring down the walls surrounding the gardens! Open the silos!" that are ringing in the ears of so many museum professionals after the spring conference season. Let's save our quarters for the laundromat.

kelly-c-porter said...

While out of the box this "pay-to-play" suggestion might seem pretty flippant, I don't think it's entirely worthless. The problem comes when you're talking about viewing museum content (for a fixed period of time, assumedly) versus popping in a quarter to play a game . . . you can guess which of these activities most folks (let alone teenagers) would find more lucrative. The thing that may be important is not the coin-by-coin act of paying, but the fact that the inspiration for (and thus the competing analog of) this pay-to-play content is frequently either a game or a treat (arcades, gumballs, peepshows, etc). Any museological attempt at such a venture would have to compete with expectations provided by that analog. This is not something that is impossible to achieve, but it would mean that these exhibits would likely be best structured as a game, preferably one where prizes, or at least the timeless satisfaction of typing your initials into a 'high score' field were available. I could easily see an arcade-style game designed around questions or activities posed by a specific exhibit, and if it looked like the familiar arcade games that we are socially cued to pay for, then people likely would do just that.
As for whole exhibits made of these, I'm fairly dubious, unless it was an exhibit about coin operated machines. People are used to exhibits being access-pay experiences, more like paying for a movie ticket or gym membership than downloading your favorite song off an album on iTunes. Even if they ignore half of what they have the opportunity to view in a museum (or half of the machines in the gym), visitors still like to believe that they could choose to do it all. The act of amortizing a fixed amount of change over several interesting exhibit pieces may result in the same "stressful calculus" already underway in most museum lobbies.

John Buchinger said...

In small to mid size museums and science centers you see a good deal of broken machines, and computers that may be from the 80's and don't work. I wonder if a smaller institution could even think about engaing with this kind of medium?
I think it is a fun idea, but if you have ever had to hand out the bagged lunces to your free and reduced lunch students on a field trip to a museum while the other kids are horking down sushi and and other nine dollar entres from the museum cafe', you might wonder about access.
Its a fine line. Don't know where I stand...

Nina Simon said...

John,

I'm a little confused by the first half of your comment. It seems to me that one of the GOOD things about coin-operation is that it would allow a small place to really assess where to put their maintenance dollars. There's an old saying that the worst exhibits last the longest because nobody uses them. Coin operation "rewards" exhibits that are well-loved.

Steven said...

I think people are getting too hung up on the monetary value implied by "coin-operated."

If the musuem were to hand out tokens (or, say, accept pennies) you would still incur the benefits of requiring the transaction of a physical object (in finite number) for an experience or period of time.

Here's an example drawn from life:

At least fifteen years ago when I visited an exhibit on arcade games at the Musuem of the Moving Image, I experienced a playable history of cabinet games from Pong up to whatever was hot in the early 90s. All of the machines required tokens to play, as if the museum really was an arcade. You received a big pile of tokens with the price of admission... but I just asked for more, they supplied handful after handful, and I was there until closing.

They weren't interested in making extra money off me, they just wanted to regulate usage of the exhibit.

Philippa said...

I think the museum shop fills this 'pay to play' role at the minute. At the very least, the better a visit you've had, the more prepared you are to spend. And usually in the area of the museum you found most interesting. I do think there's a good opportunity to link things more creatively between collections and merchandise.

Here in the UK there was quite a trend of creating arcade-style donations boxes at one point (actually I worked in a museum that had a Tim Dunkin one), in fact the Arts Council used to part-fund the creation. They definitely increase donations but the maintenance issue was definitely there. Sadly you are never going to be able to persuade visitors to donate to pay for the donation machine to be mended!

Phil Katz said...

Many people here are worried about the moral (or equity) implications of coin-operated museum experiences. The Catholic Church doesn't seem to have the same qualms. I have been in a number of European churches that charge a small fee to illuminate artworks on the walls (using a coin-operated box). They also request small donations for core religious activities, such as lighting a devotional candle (I have seen electric, coin-operated candles, too). Does this business model through any new light -- no pun intended -- on the secular counterpart proposed by Nina?

Bodhibadger said...

I like the thought of playing with this idea in the real world. Are there any museums that, because of their physical layout, are pre-adapted to try this experiment? Could you convince a museum to choose a weekend where "public" areas were free, but each gallery was pay at point of entry? It could be publicized as an experiment, and attract people interested in trying the model out.

I, too, worry that model might discourage browsing, and the kind of serendipitous exploration that leads people to discover things they did not know they liked (and would not have paid to access.)

Many museums already enable people to pay for different levels of interpretation (whether the old plastic zoo key, or audioguide recordings.) Paying for the physical access just cuts across a different parameter.

Dan spock said...

I think it's really easy to over worry the implications of the pay-for-play principle. How about embracing the fact that the transaction of coin to slot to payoff, no matter how meager the payoff is, actually has a lot of resonance for people, that the ritual comes freighted with inherent delight, anticipation, surprise, nostalgia? What's cool about this kind of transaction is that anyone can do it (and very nearly can afford it), and, contrary to the museum's worst fears, it makes things more, not less, accessible because the interface is so familiar. But the payoff needn't be.

Nina Simon said...

Dan,
Thanks for your elegant comment. Tim Hunkin is certainly the master of giving you the unexpected through a familiar entrypoint. People are enjoying, giggling at, and paying for very strange experiences that are too often rarefied or passed over in museums.

David Alexander said...

I really like the idea of a museum as a community space - a place that visitors can support by checking out the exhibits piecemeal, but also a place where people can congregate. You engage your community and make your museum the 'heart' of your community and people will support you - whether that be monetary in admission or donation or a willingness to fight for your survival. In Canada, many museums, especially smaller ones, are funded by the government - so an engaged community talking to their elected politicians can have a significant impact on an institutions survival.

Kathryn said...

This is a fascinating concept, and I love the thorough exploration of the pros and cons -- plus the insightful discussion in the comments.
I think, though, that I come down on the side of not wanting to implement pay-for-play. Here's why: I am reminded of your "elitist jerk" post. When you went to Yellowstone, you didn't like the Disney-fied experience of the park -- it interfered with your aesthetic, maybe even spiritual, connection with the beautiful landscape. For me, pay-to-play would function the same way. I don't like thinking about money. I don't like being reminded that museums are businesses, either as a museum worker OR as a visitor. I don't want monetary decisions (worth, value, cost-benefit, can I afford it?) to color my museum experience. I want to pay at the door and then forget about my wallet and its real-world implications. I want to enter a garden of wonder and browse at will, and I do not want my enjoyment to be interrupted by these small but illusion-crashing decisions. For me, pay-to-play would make the museum less special.

matt cox said...

Hasn't anyone here ever taken a young child to a museum or zoo? You know it's good for their mental growth so you try to make a day of it, but they just don't have a long enough attention span to justify the price of admission. I think that this "pay to play" format would allow families to see exactly what they want to see and not force their children to get $15 worth of experiences. I don't think it would work for an entire museum to be run like this, but it might create a boost in visitor numbers if people think they are getting their moneys worth.

Valerie said...

This idea sort of reminds me of some of the machines I came across in churches among other sites while hopping around Italy. Basically you insert however many coins to listen to an extended story about the saint, structure, etc. Also, petting zoos come to mind- putting some coins into a machine to get food to feed the animals (which surely enhances the experience).

In reading everyone's comments, I wonder if museums might consider working with the notion of fake coins/ poker chips/ play money (call it what you will) in giving a certain amount of "money" as part of admission. In this way visitors have control in selecting experiences and the essence of "pay to play" exists without feeling excluded because of cost. (Perhaps another consideration is having the museum give x number of "chips" with the option of purchasing more "chips" for further opportunities).

Stephania said...

A number of the fun, artistic contraptions in the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres (Catalonia, Spain), operate with coins. This is on top of an entry fee. Certainly there is something to be said for the name Dali and what people are willing to pay to get in, but some visitors were more interested in putting their coins in one machine, others would just walk by, more interested int he rooms beyond. Some visitors felt the need to put coins in every slot they laid eyes on, some rooms had none and you could just bask in the surrealism of the space itself. This could be an excellent idea for some institutions.