Launchpad, Wonderlab and Gallery Entry Fees at the Science Museum
I only realised last week that the Science Museum was planning to charge visitors to the revamped Launchpad Gallery, now called “Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery”. If you’ve not visited Launchpad, the then two rooms were filled with hands-on, interactive science exhibits for children, intended to stimulate science learning.
The gallery was re-launched in July with the news that the Science Museum will charge an entry fee to the new gallery (prices start at £6 per child, £8 per adult).
The Science Museum is one of a number of museums that was nationalised under the New Labour government meaning entry fees were removed via government subsidy. In today’s political climate perhaps we should not be surprised to see publically funded educational and cultural resources costing visitors directly, one gallery at a time.
Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum Group, stated in his piece defending the reintroduction of entry fees to “Wonderlab” that the rest of the museum will still be free to visit and that the costs will go towards keeping the gallery free for school groups. As everyone who works in or with museums knows all too well, museums are after all, very expensive to run. So what’s the problem?
Connecting research and practice
From an equity and inclusion perspective, the decision to charge entry to “Wonderlab” is a step backwards. The crux of this, for me, lies in what seems to be a slow creep of charges and pseudo-charges at a nationalised ‘free’ museum that ought to make science inclusive, appealing and accessible.
When put in context with the arrival in 2014 of a series of cash tills at the entrance of the Science Museum, where staff ask all visitors for a donation, entry fees for “Wonderlab” strike me as part of a worrying pattern. Setting aside a set of ‘special’ resources for those who can pay extra is elitist and exclusive, reifying a class system that is already too embedded in both museum visiting and the sciences.
Debates about charging entry to museums, galleries and science centres are hardly new. Here are the questions that I rolled around in my head when I first heard this news:
1) Is charging for a popular gallery ok if it helps the rest of the museum?
There are a lot of questions here that I don’t have enough insider information to answer, not least, what the other revenue options were. I honestly don’t know what situation the museum is in, what government funding was or was not available for the redesign or what contribution Statoil made. However, as the late Alan Friedman (2007) argued, once director of the New York Hall of Science, museums must focus on inclusion if they are to survive.
Alan Friedman made the case that inclusive practices will be the linchpin of museums’ staying relevant, well-visited and ultimately, staying open in the future. From his perspective, there is a strong business case for being inclusive. Charging entry fees to a children’s interactive learning gallery, however savvy it may be in other respects, is not an inclusive practice.
2) Are entry fees a problem?
We know from research done by Ipsos MORI (2003) when the entry fees were removed from the nationals that free entry didn’t make museum visitors more diverse, it simply meant that the same kinds of visitors (white, middle class, urban families) visited more often. We also know that costs are a serious problem influencing visitor patterns to museums.
Entry fees are a real worry to people who see museums as “not for us”. Visits to museums are seen as expensive anyway, just in terms of taking the time off work to visit, the travel costs, the food and the shops, let alone entry fees (Dawson, 2014).
Furthermore, not all families are the same shape and people not from White middle-class ‘nuclear’ families often prefer to visit with grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins in tow, making the cost of a family day out prohibitively expensive and falling outside the museum’s “family” ticket that allows for a family of four (Garibay, 2009; Dawson, 2014). Charging for the museum’s most popular children’s gallery sends a clear message that science is for some families, but not for all.
3) Is defraying school visit costs against family tickets an inclusive plan?
School visits are certainly one way to get kids from minoritized, rural and/or socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds through the door (Hooper-Greenhill, Phillips, & Woodham, 2009).
What they are not however, are guarantees that those kids will have a good time or engage with science, let along want or be able to come back with their families (Dawson, 2016). It is not enough therefore to use school visits as a panacea for exclusive practice.
While there are certainly more facets to the debate, at the core of these issues are straightforward questions about museum’s social responsibilities and social justice. Should museums, especially nationalised museums, be inclusive and accessible? And at what cost does inclusive practice come? I’m sure the redesigned “Wonderlab” will be as wonderful as its name suggests, but I’m sad that most of the people I’ve worked on research projects about inclusive science education won’t be able to see it.
Archer, L., Dawson, E., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2016). Disorientating, fun or meaningful? Disadvantaged families’ experiences of a science museum visit. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1-23. Online: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11422-015-9667-7
Dawson. E. (2014). “Not designed for us”: How informal science learning environments socially exclude low-income, minority ethnic groups. Science Education. 98 (6): 981-1008. Online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.21133/abstract
Dawson, E. (2016). When Science is Someone Else’s World. In Avraamidou, L. and Roth, W-M. (Eds). Intersections of Formal and Informal Science (pp. 82-92). London and New York: Routledge. Online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283443092_Intersections_of_Formal_and_Informal_Science
Friedman, A. J. (2007). The great sustainability challenge: How Visitor Studies can save cultural institutions in the 21st Century. Visitor Studies, 10(1), 3-12. Online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10645570701263396?journalCode=uvst20
Garibay, C. (2009). Latinos, leisure values, and decisions: Implications for informal science learning and engagement. The Informal Learning Review, 94, 10-13.
Hooper-Greenhill, E., Phillips, M., & Woodham, A. (2009). Museums, schools and geographies of cultural value. Cultural Trends, 18(2), 149 – 183. Online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09548960902826432
Ipsos MORI. (2003). The impact of free entry to museums. London: Ipsos MORI. Online: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/541_sri-the-impact-of-free-entry-to-museums-2003.pdf
Emily’s work focuses on how people engage with and learn about science, with an emphasis on equity and social justice. Her current research explores how to disrupt rather than reproduce social disadvantages in relation to science education, engagement and communication.
You can find Emily’s work page here https://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/dawson and as @emilyadawson on twitter.