So the Science Museum are opening a new gallery in October, nothing so amazing in that perhaps. “Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery” replaces the interactive ‘Launchpad Gallery’ and gives families the chance to get ‘hands on’ with science. But for the first time the Science Museum will be charging for access to a permanent gallery, what once was free will now cost families cold hard cash. An adult will pay £8 and a child £6, a family ticket for 4 will cost £22.50. You can also buy a yearly ticket for a family of 4 for £39.
The Science Museum have given us the headline good news; it will be 60% bigger than Launchpad, it will have a giant interactive orrery, two live demonstration areas and over 50 exhibits in 7 areas. The clincher in their defence of charging is the cost visitors pay will not only maintain the gallery but allow twice as many school children to visit for free. Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum Group calls it a ‘sustainable funding model’1 and highlights that the museum is making ‘a positive and ambitious choice to invest in the future of our Museum, to invest in the future of young curious minds’.
Naturally the ‘Daily Mail’2 is up in arms at a decision that marks a move away from free museum entry and have found a number of families to comment on how they will think again about visiting including one who says ‘for that kind of money many people would visit Legoland’.
A few months back a journalist asked me to comment on the decision to charge for Wonderlab. I declined for a number of reasons, firstly I needed to know more about the decision, secondly I didn’t want a soundbite taken out of context and lastly I have great affection for the Science Museum staff and team, I know quite a few members and the ‘Early Birds’ autism programme is amazing. I didn’t want to stand up and criticise them.
I have now had plenty of time to think on the decision. The summer holidays have had us visiting a number of museums in this country and abroad and paying entry fees for the privilege. So what is the big fuss? What does this decision mean for museums, for families and for the future of those curious young minds?
Well to start with not all families fit into the 2+2 family model. So yes £8 for an adult and £6 for a child seems fairly modest, it is all a little subjective. For some it will not be enough, for others too much. But I have 3 kids so it would cost us £28.50, under 4s are free which is great but sadly the youngest has just hit 6 so we no longer fit into a lot of family tickets.
£28.50 doesn’t seem too bad but then we have to get to the museum and travel would cost us around £34.20 (adult return off-peak £9.40 x 2, child return to London (under 11s don’t pay on the tube) £4.80 x 2, and 1 x child travel card (over 11s have to pay on underground) £6.00). So before we have spent a penny on anything else it has cost us £62.70. That is without evening buying a coffee and a juice (lunch would be an extravagance!). The museum coffee shop is expensive, so we are easily looking at around £100.00 to visit the museum and perhaps the shop if we are lucky.
Maybe we really want to visit the temporary exhibition at the museum in the afternoon, the Wonderlab is after all just one gallery, so how about Robots opening in 2017? That would cost us £45 (under 7s are free, this is cost of a family ticket 2 adults and 2 children). To combine both (Wonderlab and Robots would cost us £74.00, although combination tickets may be on offer).
Suddenly none of these costs look very modest to me, we would make decisions on whether we really wanted to go and could we afford it. Is there something else we could do that is cheaper? That is the reality lots of families will face and many will decide it costs too much. Suddenly a trip to the museum becomes a treat not a regular event.
But don’t get me wrong, the Science Museum Wonderlab is certainly not out of the bounds on cost, DisneyLand Paris would cost us about £240 for one day, Legoland Windsor £203, annual membership to English Heritage is £92.50. A family of 5 don’t come cheap (I know, I know my own fault for having too many kids).
This summer we have been out and about at a number of museums and paid for entry, when out of London you expect it and costs can vary – The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall cost us £40 (the ticket lasts all year) and the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie cost us 51 Euros (around £43 pounds) and that wasn’t even entry to every exhibition.
There is no denying that putting a cost on entry to Wonderlab will deter families from going, yes there is a lot to still do for free but you would certainly feel like you are missing out on the best bit. But I think the types of families who already took their kids to the old Launchpad will still take their kids to the Science Museum or if not there, they will certainly take them to another amazing museum with free entry in London, because they are the kind of parents that takes their family to a museum, this won’t deter them.
The defence of the Science Museum is that they can offer more free school visits. I do think this opens up the experience of science and a museum visit to many more children. I went and ran some educations sessions at my daughters school to 60 kids. The school is in a middle class, relatively wealthy borough. I got the kids to raise their hands if they had been to a museum, I was really surprised how few had. A few had been to the Natural History Museum, a couple to the Science Museum, maybe one or two to the British Museum and same again for the Horniman Museum which is fairly local.
There are so many kids out there who have never been to a museum and who will never go unless they visit on a school trip. I have been on school trips and seeing the children’s enthusiasm is addictive, their learning on site and in the classroom afterwards is a wonderful thing. It is often the enduring memory for a child of the whole school year. Offering more of this is a good thing, but it is a fallacy to think it comes without a cost. There will still be transportation costs, coaches or public transport and it is amazing how expensive these can be.
A trip to the V&A Museum of Childhood by coach cost me £17.50 for our daughter, a trip to Penshurst Place cost £21.50. I believe the session the children did at the Museum of Childhood cost £75 for the group so the rest is made up of the cost of the coach. Even a modest cost of a travel card, if you have a number of children at school, with different trips the accumulated expense can be prohibitive and there will be parents who struggle and can’t afford it. Even a ‘free’ visit has a cost.
The thing is for us, and why I have really written this post is part of me doesn’t care about the cost, I don’t care if it is free or not. Because without the Early Birds autism mornings we would have never visited the museum anyway. So what is important to me is that the museum is accessible on a more basic level. What I find frustrating is that at the Science Museum and many other museums I have visited, autism access programmes are funded externally by grants from charities and funding bodies, they are hardly ever part of the main education budget or part of regular budgets. So what happens after a two year programme when the funding runs out? Maybe priorities change and money is given to other areas. Access is an add-on, without early opening at the Science Museum it wouldn’t matter if the gallery was free or cost £100, it would be forever out of reach.
Is the Science Museum’s decision to charge a ‘positive and ambitious choice to invest in the future’ or is it in fact a realistic and pragmatic approach to the future of funding in museums? They are not the first to do this. When non-national museums lost their funding in 2010 hard decisions had to be made. The Horniman Museum began charging for access to their most visited part of the museum for families, the aquarium (a family ticket for 4 costs £9.90, for us we would need to add another child at £2.20, so total cost £12.20). The sad part is we visit this museum regularly but we rarely pay to visit the aquarium, because we invariably visit the cafe for a pitstop and that can cost us around £15.00.
There are no guarantees that charges will bring the kind of financial benefits the museum are hoping for. You only need to look at the York Art Gallery3, actual visitor numbers after the introduction of a ‘modest’ £7.50 entry fee have fallen 100,000 short of the projected visitors expected through the door.
I can’t condemn the museum for doing it, the reality of funding cuts in museums and an uncertain future is the price we are now paying for free museums and a reliance on external sources. At some point something has to give. Is it not wise to spread income streams and prepare for an uncertain future? I have lost my local museum to funding cuts and it is a painful experience. But I don’t think the Science Museum decision can be dressed up and disguised as a way to pay for more school visits that in reality are never free.
What makes me sad is that without the ‘Early Birds’ autism access, even a modest ticket price is a barrier because I don’t know if I am able to get my daughter through the door. I don’t know if she will cope for more than 5 minutes, it becomes an expensive hobby to chance it. But I guess the greater sadness is all those parents who decide not to go anymore and all those children who won’t get to experience the brilliant hands on fun that the Launchpad Gallery offered and that I have no doubt the Wonderlab will exceed.
The Launchpad is one of those galleries where its hands on nature brings families together to share experiments, try things out, to laugh and play more than any other area of the museum. School visits are great but family time is precious. Science is out of reach for a lot of families, it is something you do in school and you never really get to grips with again. The Launchpad gives parents the opportunity to reconnect with the fun elements of science, it gives them ideas for things to try at home and it gives them confidence to help with the homework, it is not just for the kids.
Although there are lots of free museums in London and 90% of the Science Museum will still be accessible for free, you are still ultimately putting one of the best bits behind a barrier. The Science Museum does science, as you would expect, so brilliantly and no one else comes close so it is hard to see them put a price on it, even with all the the facts, figures and best intentions in the world behind it.
The Science Museum can’t blame us for kicking up a fuss and 40,000 have voiced their opinion on an online petition4. They can’t condemn the voice of dissent because as much as the staff are brilliant and the autism mornings are amazing, it feels like the beginning of a slippery slope to two tier museum access and a move towards charging.
The Wonderlab: Statoil Gallery opens on 12 October 2016 to find out more please visit the website