NEMO contributed to an online debate on free museum admission

© Image: Alicia Steels A large group of tourists stand behind a rope fence inside a museum to take photos of something outside of the picture.

© Image: Alicia Steels

NEMO Secretary General Julia Pagel shared her thoughts in the online debate “Should all museums be free to the public?" together with Member of Parliament Niklas Nienaß and hosted by Debating Europe.

Debating Europe had collected four questions on the topic from European citizens that Julia Pagel and Niklas Nienaß got to reply to per video. The first question concerned museum business models that usually mainly focus on visitor numbers, which have proven to be unsustainable during social distancing rules. Can big cultural venues like museums, galleries, and concert venues return to their old pre-pandemic business models, or will they need more government support in future?

Pagel presented findings from the most recent NEMO survey on Covid-19’s impact on the museum sector, which showed that although museums had reopened, they experienced a 50-75 % decrease in visits compared to pre-pandemic times. Financial support packages are needed to make up for the loss of income, but so are coming up with new offers to adapt to the situation. New metrics of success, that do not only consider visitor numbers, should also be discussed next to an increased focus on the local community.  

The second citizen input points out that Europe’s cultural sector has been under pressure since before Covid (for example from budget cuts, the rise of the Internet etc.) and that the pandemic just has accelerated things. In response, Pagel agrees that the pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass on already prevailing issues and that the cultural sector in fact has been under pressure, in terms of budget cuts, since the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time museums are expected to contribute more to social issues with no additional resources. Museums will indeed have to accelerate their digital expansions to become and remain relevant online.

The third question concerns free admission for everyone. Pagel argues that although it’s a lovely idea, one also has to consider the objectives that one wants to reach when making museums free. Such as, who will actually pay for all costs associated with running a museum and will the museum really get a more diverse audience merely by making admission free? Perhaps visiting museums has to be made attractive in other ways to diversify and increase the audience?

The last question urges Europe to confront its colonial past and asks who should decide what is displayed in museums and galleries. Pagel brings up the ICOM definition which states that museums are in service of society and that in this matter museums need to be in dialogue with the public and they need to regain the public’s trust. This is also necessary to increase the relevance of the museum and to ensure that the community feels represented and reflected by the museum.  

Watch the full video responses online and add your comments: