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Free entry cannot attract visitors for Chinese museums

By Yang Xu (People's Daily)

07:42, May 23, 2012

Edited and translated by People's Daily Online

China introduced a policy of free admission to public museums three years ago, and nearly 80 percent of the country’s cultural and antique museums are now open to the public free of charge.

Around the International Museum Day, many Chinese museums are still using the relatively old trick of offering “free admission” to attract visitors.

The introduction of the free admission policy used to turn once-ignored museums into busy destinations for visitors. For instance, the number of visitors to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum grew four-fold in the first year after the museum adopted the policy. The Fujian Provincial Museum was once temporally closed due to exhibition losses caused by the sudden huge influx of visitors.

However, many people believe that the upsurge in museum visitors cannot last long. Over time, people can lose interest and ignore museums once again.

The citizens of many developed countries visit the museum three to five times a year on average, while one of every five to six Chinese people visit the museum only once a year.

Free admission has become less appealing in the “post-free era.” There are worries that many Chinese people with immature psychology regarding the use of public goods have visited museums just because they are free, and failed to appreciate the cultural elements in the museums.

Certain believers in environmental determinism are worried that the free admission policy alone may not be able to ensure the prosperous development of the museum sector in China, where there is no tradition of museum visiting.

Free entry costs dearly. Free public goods, if not used properly, will cause negative consequences, and lead to the tragedy of the commons. It is a dilemma arising from the situation in which each shepherd is trying to increase the size of his own flock in order to maximize his own interests, which will ultimately deplete the shared field, leaving all the shepherds without food for their sheep. However, if such tragedy happens in China, it may be caused by excessive neglect instead of overexploitation.

Just making public goods free is not enough. The tragedy of the commons will be unavoidable if the quality and social awareness of citizens are not improved constantly.

Museums should not only provide knowledge, but also shape citizens’ awareness and habits. They should not only educate current visitors, but also make efforts to nurture the next generation of qualified visitors

Free access is just a starting point in the journey of striving for cultural equality. More efforts are needed to reach the end of journey.

Read the Chinese version: 只靠免费,门前可能依然冷落


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E Peterson at 2012-05-2464.91.200.*
Few museums around the world are open to the public for free. One exception is the Smithsonian in Washington DC. It is always crowded because of the excellence of the collection and its presentation.

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