"But the dinosaur museum is better!"
Shrieking child in the Science Museum lobby
I visited the Victoria & Albert and Science museums last week, having missed out the Natural History Museum and its hours wait in the wind and cold. The lines for the V&A and Science Museums were, by comparison, short and out of the way. Entrance is free, and on any one day 50,000 people will pass through the gates at South Kensington, scores of which will be museum goers. But any visitor will be struck by two observations: first, despite a lack of admissions charge, museums are battling for visitors, with their ice rink and glorious facades; and second the Natural History Museum is winning. There are finite numbers of gift shop patrons and restaurant goers, the Science Museum, for example, houses two restaurants, two cafes, and a snack bar, so competition is fierce. These are the Museum Wars, and it is clear the Natural History Museum is champion.
Where is it all leading, and is it good? All three museums are sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, with the aim to remain free to the public. This means in order for a museum to maximise its income it must focus on quantity over quality. Their incentives become obvious when you see cheap gimmicks and shallow presentations, drawing crowds which end in gift shops like a Disneyland ride. Don't get me wrong, it's good to want people to spend at your restaurant or your shop, it's when they pretend an entertainment gambit is actually education. This was demonstrated by the recent fiefdom expansion by the Science Museum when they raided the London Guildhall's closing clock collection and produced the near-uninhabited horology aisle on the first floor. Obviously, not every exhibit is going to be to everyone's interest, and the competition over visitors is forcing them to stay somewhat relevant to what people want. They have reached an equilibrium, and change won't be much on the agenda, but I have an idea to make the museums better and I know many people are going to be horrified.
If the V&A, the Science, and the Natural History museums had to sell tickets, as they do for their special Cosmonaut or Fabric of India exhibits, then they would be forced to be interesting and ensure value for money. I know many readers won't like it, thinking that this will either dumb down exhibits or prohibit the less privileged from a day out. But I must point out my one way Oyster fare was £2.70 and the success of the V&A's excellent £14 Fabric of India exhibit. People already have no problem paying to visit the properties of the National Trust, which receives no government support. And the museums, with its new found freedom from HM Government, could start teaching the subjects it wants, instead of the subjects the government thinks we ought to want. I was encouraged to discover a packed Einstein enclave in the Science Museum, and I think there is a large group of people interested in a more mature and detailed exhibit (who probably, like me, use the V&A gift shop as a sort of Amazon recommended list, off which I subsequently buy). The Natural History Museum understand a lot of people enjoy facts and inspiration, which might be why they are winning the Museum Wars, rather than what I like to call Hello magazine science. Purchasing tickets would incentivise the museums to focus on customer satisfaction in things like galleries quiet enough you can read in and queues short enough not to freeze the elderly off. London has an inspiring history of museums, and in order to remain some of the world's most popular they must start charging for entry and turning visitors into patrons.