Are UK museums deterring visitors with Covid booking system for permanent collections?

The UK’s National Museums are considering whether to continue with the current reservation system, introduced due to Covid-19. The apparent easing of the pandemic last month and the easing of government restrictions around the country means museums will now reconsider whether they should continue to issue tickets for their permanent collections.

Booking with free tickets allows for headcount control at a time when social distancing is desirable. However, the checks carried out by The arts journal on availability suggest that tickets may have become an unnecessary clutter.

At the end of January, all slots were available for the whole week at the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Only the V&A seems to be partially booked just before the weekends, probably because it’s currently closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The main argument against a ticket system is that it acts as a deterrent, especially for visitors who want to show up at the last minute. This often seems confusing and results in fewer visitors, reducing self-generated restaurant and store revenue.

The latest available visitor data for all UK national museums is from July to September 2021. They received 5m visitors, up from 14.2m in the same period in 2019, much of the decline being due to minimal international tourism. Total self-generated revenue fell from £329m in 2019/20 to £144m in the last financial year.

A National Gallery spokesperson said “we are constantly monitoring our ticketing situation, whilst taking into account the latest advice regarding Covid-19”.

At the British Museum, a spokesperson explains: “We advise visitors to book a time slot to guarantee entry and provide the best visitor experience. Walk-in tours are available daily for those arriving without prior reservation. We are regularly reviewing the situation and do not plan to change these arrangements at this time.

Meanwhile, a Tate spokesperson said: “We have maintained a free reservation system in place throughout the pandemic, which remains under constant review as we continue to respond to new variations and guidelines. Visitors are welcome without pre-booking and it’s quick and easy to get a free ticket on arrival at the gallery.

The V&A operates what it calls “a hybrid walk-in, ticketed model.” Planning ahead, the V&A will “consider whether there are benefits to continuing with the hybrid model”.

National museums are likely to try to act in unison, perhaps in the spring, as differing admissions systems would sow further confusion.

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