The crowds at free museums are not a great achievement, they are worrisome

According to Minister Sangiuliano, the just passed Free Sunday was a "great achievement. "However, the crowds at the free museums are not a triumph, they are worrying and indicate that there is a structural problem to be solved.

Yesterday, a few hours after the conclusion of the free Sunday on June 4, for the first time combined with another narrow free admission (the one instituted for Republic Day), Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano triumphantly declared that the Sunday just passed concluded “with a great result the long bridge under the banner of culture, which opened with free admission to state museums and archaeological parks on June 2, instituted for the first time on the occasion of Republic Day: two days of free admission to enjoy the extraordinary national cultural heritage.” An “extraordinary opportunity,” Sangiuliano continued, “for citizens and tourists to discover or rediscover works and monuments, appropriating their beauty and nourishing the spirit of their aura.” Not only that: early Sunday afternoon, the minister posted on Twitter some photographs of the long lines in front of the Colosseum, demonstrating the “success for our archaeological parks and museums.”

Despite these results being sold as a great triumph for culture, the minister’s narrative (which, for the avoidance of doubt, in relation to free Sundays is entirely identical to that of his predecessors) would seem, if anything, to highlight, upon a slightly deeper analysis, the symptoms of a problem, which with the recent widespread increases to admission tickets for cultural venues will only exacerbate. Just take the example of the Uffizi: it is easy to see that from the moment prices were adjusted upward, museum visits on free Sundays have always exceeded nine thousand, an event that used to happen only on Sundays close to holidays, and a trend that does not seem to affect other museums, which are more tied to seasonal flows. Crowds at museums, in short, are not a triumph: they are worrisome.

One can start from the bottom: the minister is right when he says that free Sundays are an “extraordinary occasion.” However, the adjective should be understood in the sense of “out of the ordinary”: and it is not healthy for visitors to wait for just one day a month to have a chance to go to museums near them. There is a lack of data on the composition of flows (the Ministry has been asked for years to conduct surveys to understand how museum audiences are structured, especially on these occasions: let’s hope the time will finally come), but it should be noted that many museums prevent booking entry during Free Sunday, an aspect that disincentivizes tourists from visiting: who, having only a few days to visit Florence (perhaps for the only time in their life and after a transoceanic trip), is willing to waste two or three hours in line? Not to mention that, in the impossibility of booking, many tour operators do not even consider letting their clients visit museums on these days.

In any case, whether a tourist or a citizen, how can a visitor to the Colosseum, the Uffizi or Pompeii be expected to be satisfied with his or her experience after visiting the museum in the crush and after standing in line for hours? A museum or archaeological site visit does not have to be a tour de force, it does not have to be uncomfortable: it has to be as easy and enjoyable as possible. And above all, it must really be an opportunity for the citizen and tourist to discover a place of culture: it must not take away a half-morning spent in line. Also because it is self-defeating for everyone, because the time spent in line can be spent by the citizen and tourist in other and more profitable ways. Of course: this problem can be easily remedied by introducing reservation-based queue-cutting systems. Visiting a museum on a free Sunday will thus become a race to see who can click faster on the ministerial platforms, but at least, it will be said, the problem of queues will be solved, assuming museums know how to organize themselves properly (a ticket obtained in advance is not enough by itself to make queues magically disappear: flows must still be managed optimally to make sure that everyone gets in at the time they are supposed to).

The queue at the Colosseum in one of the photographs posted on Twitter by Minister Sangiuliano
The queue at the Colosseum in one of the photographs posted on Twitter by Minister Sangiuliano

The problem, however, is not limited to the management of a queue: it is decidedly less superficial. Useful in this sense come the words of the minister: “two days of free admission to enjoy the extraordinary national cultural heritage.” Here: it is profoundly wrong to create the conditions for the public to wait for those two free days to “enjoy the extraordinary national cultural heritage.” There is no denying that free Sundays have had the effect of bringing many citizens closer to their cultural places. And in many little-known museums, where crowds are almost always absent, Free Sunday is still a pleasant experience. But one wonders whether, nearly a decade after its introduction, free Sundays is not an experience to be outgrown, to be left behind, to be replaced with structural measures that allow anyone who wants to to enjoy museums whenever they want, without the need to flock one day a month. Having ascertained that there are many people who want to see museums, and taking for granted the need to ensure, on the one hand, a continuous flow of income for the institutions (so no to senseless total and permanent free admission: this has already been discussed extensively on these pages), and on the other hand that of safeguarding the possibility of visiting them also for those who might not be so inclined to pay to enter every time, we could work to meet the needs of those who would like to experience museums more, with easily applicable measures, right away, capable of bringing our museums up to European standards.

A few examples: discounts or free admission for those who are not employed (a measure already in place for some time in many European museums from the Louvre on down), or for residents, at least on a municipal, if not provincial, basis, since a visit to Palazzo Spinola in Genoa is as basic for those who live in Pegli or Lagaccio as it is for those who live in Moneglia or Chiavari. For the larger museums, free admission always, every day, the last hour or the last two hours (as happens at the Prado), so that those who want to enter to see even one work can do so without having to pay for a ticket each time (a measure, in essence, that incentivizes a mechanism like: I work in downtown Florence, I leave the office, today I go for a half-hour aperitif, tomorrow I go a half-hour to the Uffizi to see the Magnoli Altarpiece, the day after tomorrow a half-hour to the Pitti Palace to see Titian’s Magdalene). Alternatively, make more and more popular forms of subscriptions such as those recently introduced at the Uffizi or the National Gallery of Umbria: I pay a certain amount per year and am entitled to enter the museum as often as I like, perhaps skipping the queue, or benefiting from discounts at the bookshop. And then, activate cross conventions with other places, for example, theaters, cinemas and, why not, gyms, stores, restaurants. For example: if you go one night to the theater, you get a reduced ticket to the museum. If you work out at a gym, you can get a discount on your museum membership. And so on. The time should be ripe enough to review our museum access policies: free Sundays have had their day, the public is not a monolith and everyone visits a museum for a variety of reasons, experiences should be diversified. Most importantly, there should be incentives for the public to attend museums. In short, make visiting museums a habit. The exact opposite of an “extraordinary occasion.”