Vincent Munley: How Much is Too Much?

Some museums charge an admission fee, others ask for a voluntary donation, and still others don’t charge at all.

Vincent Munley, professor of economics and program director for Lehigh’s summer study abroad program in Galway, Ireland, says significant economic literature exists addressing topics pertaining to admission fees at museums, including the appropriate roles of government funding.

But, he says, “in spite of this rather broad literature on how museums should be financed and, if there’s an admission fee, how it should be structured, there’s very little empirical evidence on the public demand for museum services,” that is, the probability that people will still visit museums at alternative levels of an admission fee.

Through the analysis of survey data collected over a total of five years at the Galway Museum in Ireland, Munley calculated the total value of annual museum visits at different potential admission fees, giving museums considering an admission fee the methodology to figure out demand.

The study originated when a group of Lehigh students studying in Ireland took  on a consulting project for the Galway Museum, which doesn’t charge an admission fee. The students, under the museum’s direction, constructed a survey that assessed visitor perceptions on exhibits and other matters. Munley successfully petitioned to add a final question: “Would you have visited the Galway Museum today if there had been an admission fee of X euro?” For the survey “X” was randomly assigned values of 2, 4, 6, 8 or 10 euros. His intention was to analyze the data to help museums find a price point that economically makes the most sense.

“The museum officials were sort of ambivalent about it,” Munley says. “You see, professionals in the museum community have this very fundamental belief that museums should be free to the public.”

Munley’s analysis—The Economic Value of Attendance at a Museum with No Admission Fee—estimates empirically the probability of attendance as fees are implemented and increased. The estimates serve as a basis for calculations of revenue raised, consumer surplus and deadweight loss (a loss of economic efficiency) of reduced attendance at different values of a hypothetical admission fee.

Most economic research is based on the price paid for goods in actual markets, Munley says. It’s tougher to measure something that is free and considering a charge, so economists have to find a way to place a price on it, he says. Munley uses the contingent valuation method—asking people what amount they’d pay or if they would be willing to pay for a service.

The students’ project work proved helpful for the Galway Museum—they recommended, for example, it have a voluntary donation box based on feedback from survey respondents, and the following year, one was added. Munley’s subsequent analysis of the data looked more in-depth at the demand for museum services.

One concern is: If museums charge admission, will they lose funding from the government or philanthropy?

“There are a lot of interesting, complicated questions out there in this,” Munley says. “And then people have looked at who goes to museums, and not surprisingly, wealthy people go more than poor people. So this idea that you have to keep museums free so that everybody can go to them, when in fact low-income people are not frequent attendees, might be considered as Robin Hood on its head in terms of public subsidies.”

Munley concludes museums need to answer the tough questions for themselves on whether to charge admission fees, and how much. There is no single correct answer for the broad spectrum of museums across countries, he says. However, Munley says museums can take his findings, collect their own data and determine the best admission fee, or whether that means none at all.

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