Conference Report: AIM 2017

The AIM conference was at Chatham Historic Dockyard this year, and it was remarkable for the sheer diversity of the participating organisations. 

The venue itself is likely to be one of the bigger independents, and a comparison with my own organisation (Catalyst in Widnes) by dint of simply looking at our respective reports reveals some significant and interesting differences.

In terms of visitor figures Chatham has about 180k pa vs our own 40k, but apart from the huge difference in size of the site, and the interesting combination of types of attraction at Chatham, then the most significant statistic was the significant amount of income that they are able to realise from their property portfolio, which is the biggest single income stream by some margin.  In overall terms Chatham has 4 and a half times our visfigs but more than 14 times our income, and quite frankly it is a source of some wonder that we do so much with so little.

Coming back to diversity, this was highlighted in one of the most interesting workshops which considered the issue of whether or not to charge.  This question was widely interpreted, for example at the smaller end of the scale Elgin museum, which is run to a great extent by volunteers, made a decision to test a move after 170 years, from paid to free admission (the Moray Society which controls the museum has separate membership arrangements).  Amongst the reasons for this were static visfigs along with poor involvement for volunteers from time to time (they got bored!)

The Elgin raised £6k from local business supporters to trial the scheme, as this sum was equal to the approximate annual visitor income, and the scheme went ahead.  This resulted in an increase in visfigs by 25%, and donations (now heavily promoted) exceed the previous admission income.

At the Moray Society’s AGM on April 24 this year the agenda notes recorded the positive outcome.

“the Office Bearers reiterated the benefits of not charging an admission fee, reflected in the increased number of visits/revisits and the happy atmosphere in the Museum without loss of revenue”

At the other end of the scale came the behemoth that is Birmingham Museums Trust, an interesting collection of former municipal sites and a major gallery that had merged with Thinktank in 2012.  The need for increased income had led them to introduce some significant changes in their charging regime.  Things that were formally free became chargeable, and as an example in 2015 Thinktank began to charge for its planetarium which, apart from and extra £200k annual income, had the possibly unanticipated benefit of increasing customer ratings for the planetarium itself.  Parents now found the removal of the uncertainty inherent in the previous queueing system to be a significant improvement.  This is something (advance purchase of timed workshop tickets) that we will consider very seriously, and we may now add a premium for so doing.

In other aspects of the trust’s business some other changes were also made.  In 2016, at the heritage sites, under 16s were no longer free.  This seems to be a fairly reasonable act, and it surprises me that this was not the case previously.  This year a potentially more controversial change was enacted, when the concession price for 60+ was removed from all sites.  I don’t know about you, but we would find this a very difficult thing to do, and I wonder if the jury of public opinion has come to a decision about this just yet.

Bristol Culture is an as yet unreconstructed council run service who talked about their “pay what you think” ideas which started as mandatory charging for special exhibitions but after initial success this came a cropper on the back of unwise choice of a second exhibition where the conversion rate from general (free) visitors was less than 1%.   The change to PWYT (and better chosen subsequent exhibitions) led to average donation per exhibition visitor of 65 pence.  This method should not be construed as “pay nothing if you don’t want to”, although I did wonder how compulsion could be applied in this case. 

This reminds me of general admission to the New York Met “If you buy tickets at a Museum ticket counter, the amount you pay is up to you” where I once had a “discussion” with gate staff who were trying to enforce an entirely notional admission charge.  I do hope that Bristol’s idea succeeds.

Whilst this is in no way a comprehensive review of the AIM Conference, I hope that the topic that I chose was of interest to readers, and I would also like to thank MDNW for their travel and board bursary, which was the only reason that I could contemplate the trip.

Paul Meara, Catalyst Science Discovery Centre



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