Today we’re looking at Free at Last, chapter 13 of Elaine’s book, an essay originally published in 2005 in AAM’s Museum News (issue 84). Elaine doesn’t waste time mincing words about free admission. The essay starts as follows:
I have reluctantly, but unequivocally, come to the conclusion that general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums fully accessible.And ends:
The major and undeniable problem with charging is that it is a means test. In the current situation only those who can afford the cost, and think the experience is valuable enough to pay for, can have access to the patrimony that belongs to us all. We cannot continue to discuss inclusion if we continue to charge for general admission.
Most arguments for free admission center around the idea that the cultural artifacts collected by museums should be available for free use by all. (See, for example, this timely article about museum admission in the UK.) Elaine starts there, arguing that “[museums] cannot argue that they are a resource for those impelled to learn something if the learner must first determine if they can afford to learn.” But she acknowledges that removing admissions fees doesn’t mean instant inclusion; transitioning to free admission has been shown to result in higher attendance, but most of the new visitors fit the traditional museum-going profile.
Instead, Elaine goes to a more interesting place, arguing that charging admission fundamentally affects the nature of the museum experience. She argues that charging admission promotes treatment of the museum visit as an occasional, special event rather than “an easily repeatable one.” The cost of the experience means people want to “urgently cover as much ground as possible” instead of dropping in, doing a bit, and coming back again (as they do in libraries). This special event requires visit planning (How much does it cost? When can my family get a reduced entrance? Where are there passes available? How long will I be there? Do I need to bring food?).
Even if a person does approach a museum on a whim, he or she cannot browse through the museum before making an assessment as to its value. As Elaine puts it, “One cannot enter a museum unobtrusively.” Locating the admission desk “at the door” forces visitors to make an immediate decision about whether the experience they are about to receive—and cannot sample—is worth the asking price. Given peoples’ (including museum professionals!) hazy ideas about “value” of a museum visit, this entry experience can be bewildering and off-putting. Not convinced? I remember visiting the excellent Muhammed Ali Center last year in Louisville during the ASTC conference. As a huge Ali fan, there was no question that I would pay whatever they asked to enter. But I saw other museum people who heard the price ($9), scanned the lobby, and walked out. Even for these professionals, who believe in the value of museums and had taken the time to walk over to the place, the value assessment at entry was not convincing enough to overcome the admission barrier. Perhaps if they had, as Elaine considers, moved the admissions desk later in the experience, they might have hooked more paying guests.
But Elaine’s interest goes beyond more guests, beyond making museum resources available to all potential users. She is promoting fundamentally different patterns of museum use, ones that more closely mirror the ways other civic spaces, like libraries, malls, and parks, are used. As long as admission is in place, she contends, museums cannot be treated as amenities to be used for different purposes at different times by different people. They will be treated as attractions with specific purposes, and “will never become the forum, the meeting ground, the crossroads, the town square that we are all fond of talking about.”
From my perspective, there are two basic arguments concerning museum admission:
- Museums should be free. Museums provide access to content and experiences that should be available to all regardless of ability to pay.
- Museums should charge admission. Museums provide leisure activities and experiences and should be valued/priced commensurate with the “experience” market. When museums are free, visitors are encouraged to undervalue the experience offered. When museums are priced “at market rate,” people judge the experience relative to others and make their decisions accordingly.
Elaine’s argument shifts this debate by adding a third option to this list:
Museums (should) provide services that are broad and applicable to everyday life, whose value is variable, and to which entrance (though not necessarily all services) should be free.
Note the should. Current museum structure and design rarely supports the kinds of museum experience for which Elaine advocates. Blockbuster exhibitions, omnipresent audio and light effects, and many of the other recent museum innovations that have created more compelling alternatives in the attraction market also make museums less open to flexible, self-directed, browserly visits. As Elaine puts it, “Museums, if they remain oriented toward their paying customers, will not, I contend, organize themselves as the more general resource they can become.”
Consider this: I’m writing this post from a public library right now. Next to me, there’s a guy painting with watercolors. There’s a woman reading a magazine. There are other people using the internet. There are people sleeping. How many of these functions could be served at the average museum? I remember visiting the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where I was delighted to discover both a museum and a library. But how strange it must be for some kids to realize they can go into the library whenever they want and play around, but they need to have money or a membership card to enter the museum.
So, what’s a museum to do? A lot of this has to do with mission. When I was at the Spy Museum, a for-profit institution, there was no hair-pulling over this. SPY is a museum that operates like an attraction. It charges what the market will bear. The marketing (both formal and word-of-mouth) supports the price value and keeps people coming in the door. Some people are turned off by the high price and choose not to come, but that is considered a marketing problem, not an inclusion problem.
So that’s one option: to embrace and organize as a full member of the attraction market. But that supports the “special occasion” view of the museum, and it won’t get us any closer to creating spaces for discourse and variable use. If you buy into Elaine’s vision of museums as places for all kinds of interactions, what should happen to admission fees? Should we reorganize our institutions to offer both free, flexible spaces and market rate attractions (IMAX, blockbusters, simulators)? Do we need to change the kinds of exhibitions and programs offered to create a more sustainable model? Is it reasonable to think of museums as providing flexible civic services, or do those services belong in other institutions—like libraries—that already support variable patterns of use?
I’ve written far too much. Please, overtake me and discuss.