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.
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?