Charging to see the stars
Visitor numbers plummet at the Royal Observatory
By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 232, February 2012
Published online: 01 February 2012
london. The number of visitors to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, in the south east of London, has fallen by more than half after an admission charge was reintroduced last March.
The experience at Greenwich provides a recent example of the impact of charging. Opponents of admission fees will feel vindicated, while its supporters can point to the £1,475,000 in revenue earned in nine months.
Royal Museums Greenwich (the rebranded name of the National Maritime Museum group), which runs the observatory, had a best-case projection that attendance would fall from just over 1 million to 825,000 visitors a year, with the majority of potential adult visitors willing to pay a £7 admission charge (it remains free for children aged under 16). During the first nine months of ticketing, the observatory received 480,000 visitors, compared with 1,068,000 in the same period in 2010, a fall of 55%. This was significantly greater than had been anticipated.
A museum spokeswoman says that the drop in visitors was partly caused by test arrangements for the 2012 Olympic equestrian event, which made it harder for visitors to reach the observatory for a few weeks last year.
The observatory, which lies on the brow of the hill in Greenwich Park and overlooks the National Maritime Museum and the River Thames, has two main attractions: Flamsteed House and the Meridian Line. Flamsteed House, designed by Christopher Wren in 1675, was the original home of the Royal Observatory and it houses historic scientific equipment. Visitors can also find the Prime Meridian Line, which runs through the courtyard, representing the Greenwich Meridian. The nearby Planetarium, also run by Royal Museums Greenwich, reopened after a five-year, £16m redevelopment in 2007, and has a £6.50 admission charge.
Until 2001 the observatory charged admission. This was dropped as part of the Labour government’s policy to make entrance to national museums free. With free entry visitor numbers quadrupled by 2010 to more than one million.
With the introduction of charges last year, shop sales are expected to drop considerably with the fall in visitor numbers. On the positive side, fewer visitors have reduced wear and tear on the historic fabric of the building.
This year Royal Museums Greenwich will face a further problem owing to the Olympic equestrian events. Although the observatory will only have to close from 23 July to 3 August, access will be partially disrupted from May to October. Royal Museums Greenwich expects to make a claim from the Olympic organisers for compensation for its anticipated loss of revenue during this period.
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