The UK’s national museums are reviewing whether to continue the present booking system, introduced because of Covid-19. Last month’s apparent easing of the pandemic and loosening of government restrictions in the country means that museums will now be reconsidering whether to continue to issue tickets for their permanent collections.
Booking with free tickets makes it possible to control numbers at a time when social distancing is desirable. However, checks by The Art Newspaper on availability suggest that tickets may have become an unnecessary encumbrance.
In late January, all slots were available for the entire week at the National Gallery, Tate, British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Only the V&A appears to get partially booked up just before the weekends, presumably because it is currently closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The main argument against a ticketed system is that it acts as a deterrent, particularly for visitors wanting to drop in at the last minute. It often seems confusing and results in fewer visitors, reducing self-generated income from catering and shops.
The latest available visitor data for all the UK’s national museums is for July-September 2021. They received 5 million visitors, compared with 14.2 million in the same period in 2019, with much of the fall due to minimal international tourism. Total self-generated income fell from £329m in 2019/20 to £144m in the last financial year.
A National Gallery spokesperson says that “we are keeping our ticketing situation under constant review, while taking the latest advice regarding Covid-19 into account”.
At the British Museum, a spokesperson explains: “We advise visitors to book a timed slot to guarantee entry and provide the best visitor experience. Walk-up visits are available each day for those who arrive without advance bookings. We review the situation regularly and have no plans to change these arrangements at present.”
Meanwhile, a Tate spokesperson says: “We have kept a free booking system in place throughout the pandemic, which remains under constant review as we continue to respond to new variants and guidelines. Visitors are very welcome without pre-booking and it is quick and easy to get a free ticket on arrival at the gallery.”
The V&A operates what it calls “a hybrid walk-up and ticketed model”. In planning ahead, the V&A “will be considering whether there are any benefits in continuing with the hybrid model”.
It is likely that the national museums will try to act in unison, possibly in the spring, since different admission systems would sow further confusion.