Are the hours of free Sundays numbered? Perhaps, waiting for the real revolution that museums need

Free Sundays at the museum may be cancelled. This seems to transpire from Minister Bonisoli's words: let's hope this is the right time.

Perhaps, free Sundays have their hours counted and may soon become a thing of the past. Earlier this year, from these pages, the writer had launched the proposal to abolish them and think about alternative forms of incentive, and after recent statements by the Minister of Cultural Heritage Alberto Bonisoli, it seems that the next initiatives may move in this direction. During the presentation of the department’s programmatic lines, which took place this Tuesday in the Chamber of Deputies, Bonisoli in fact stated, “I was asked what I think about free Sundays. What I can tell you is that they will remain, so tourists who come to the free Sunday in August will get in for free, in September they will get in for free, in October I don’t know (they will probably get in for free) and then from November on we will see.”

Foto di una domenica gratuita alla Reggia di Caserta, scattata da Pasquale Liccardo e pubblicata da Tomaso Montanari sul blog Articolo 9
Photo of a free Sunday at the Royal Palace of Caserta, taken by Pasquale Liccardo and published by Tomaso Montanari on the blog Articolo 9

Of course, it is too early to draw conclusions, but it is also true that, as much as the minister, in the continuation of his speech, remarked how his announcement moves between the serious and the facetious, free Sunday is certainly not an untouchable institution. It is also true that free Sundays have helped bring considerable flows of visitors to museums: the data say so. And it is also likely that they have led many citizens and tourists to discover museums they had never visited before. However, it is also necessary to consider the negative side of free Sundays: overcrowded museums unable to offer visitors optimal conditions to admire the works, queues of hours and hours in order to gain access, stressful situations for guides and staff (as well as stress for the facilities, which are often unable to handle massive flows of visitors). Moreover, although free Sundays have brought an undeniable increase in audiences, we lack data that would allow us to properly segment them. In other words, we know that hundreds of thousands of people went to museums on the first Sunday of the month (3,549,201, to be exact). But we don’t know anything about these three million visitors: we don’t know the average age and age distribution, we don’t know how many of them are inclined to spend (and, if so, how much they are willing to spend), we don’t know what their profession or economic status is. Basically, there has been a lack of analysis: and this is serious, since through data analysis we could have gained a detailed understanding of the composition of the audience. And perhaps we could have used the data to make free admission in museums more effective.

Paradoxically, it is not far-fetched to think that indiscriminately extending free museum admission to everyone for just one day a month is a classist and undemocratic idea. It is as if we wanted to lock up in the chaotic cage of #domenicalmuseum those who find it difficult to spend to enter cultural venues because the cost of the ticket weighs heavily on their family budget. And then to spice it up with the rhetoric of promoting culture: but to grant access only once a month to those who might find it difficult to pay the full ticket price, and moreover to allow it in the context of a situation that forces the public to visit tremendously crowded halls and have to stand in line for hours to get in, is the least inclusive thing that could be done to truly extend access to museums to as many people as possible. This is not how it is supposed to work: those in need (think, for example, of those without jobs) should be put in a position where they can visit museums every day of the year, freely, without having to wait for that one, miserable Sunday that is granted to them from above to enter for free a place of culture that they know and love, or that they want to start discovering.

So, it seems that the time has finally come to rethink free Sundays, and perhaps replace them with targeted discounts and pricing policies that can bring Italy in line with other European countries where more elastic pricing is already a reality. The minister seems to have given some good pointers: “we are talking about cultural marketing. If I were a museum director, I would ask for two things: first, to be left a little bit freer to make some kind of price, rate, time and segmentation policies. The second, even if there was something at the national level, to have the drift at the local level. That’s because it’s probably not the case that the museum in Mantua and the museum in Rome are the same thing.” So one could, at least at first, maintain free Sundays in museums (especially small ones) for which they are a vital resource that allows them to expand their audiences and make their collections known. And a study could then be launched involving local authorities (in fact, the minister stressed that local authorities know and are able to segment visitors to their museums well) to conduct a study on the composition of the public, perhaps beginning the surveys as early as the upcoming #domenicalmuseo events.

The data should then be used to bring about the real revolution on museum prices that Italy needs and that we at Windows on Art have long been calling for. That is, everything that, I repeat, already happens in other museums in Europe: free admission for those who do not have a job, discounted tickets for families, extension of opening hours also in the evening or at night (it is not clear, after all, why for cinemas it is normal to guarantee access to those who work during the day, and instead for museums this is an exception), conventions with other museums and cultural institutes through cards (which, moreover, already exist in many municipal or regional realities) that also integrate services (transportation, for example) or offer discounts to spend in local businesses. The minister’s statements give hope: and we hope, therefore, that this is the right time to abolish free Sundays and start a new pricing policy for our museums.

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