Science for Some, but Not for All

Dr Emily Dawson, University College London

Dr Emily Dawson, University College London

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Ipsos MORI. (2003). The impact of free entry to museums. London: Ipsos MORI. Online:

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.

Projects include: Enterprising Science and Equity Pathways in Informal STEM Learning.

You can find Emily’s work page here and as @emilyadawson on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Science for Some, but Not for All

  1. Thank you for writing this. It’s really helpful to have these references about the impacts of charging. You make an important point about how this combines with installing the cash till barriers at the entrance, and asking for a donation. I’m also personally very concerned that this is sponsored by and named for an oil company.

    I’m interested that you describe the museum as having been nationalised at the time of the new Labour govt. As far as I understand the Science Museum used to be directly managed by the Government (i.e. directly national) until the National Heritage Act in 1983 established the national museums as arms-length bodies and charities. I thought the only change in the late 1990s was that their DCMS grant-in-aid was made more conditional on achieving more inclusive Key Performance Indicators and not being able to charge for general entry (only for exhibitions).

    • Hi Bridget, thanks for your comments. You’re quite right – “nationalised” in my head is short hand for “entry fees were removed”, which isn’t quite the same thing! Glad you found the post interesting, cheers, emily

  2. Questions spring to mind was around the idea of keeping school visits free. Which types of schools are visiting? Are all different groups of young people included in these school groups?

  3. A very useful article, Thanks Emily.

    The most upsetting thing about this, to me as someone from an interactives-only, paid-for attraction, is the choice of Launchpad/Wonderlab as the thin end of the charging wedge. Launchpad and it’s predecessor The Children’s Gallery are “entry points” for museum going, the motivational way into a lifelong relationship with both museums and science. They are the bit that should be free.

    Alan Friedman was right, promoting inclusion is investment in the future of the institution.

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