As inflation pushes households to tighten entertainment and travel budgets, many are foregoing trips to museums and cultural institutions, where tickets can often exceed $25 per person.
This coming Saturday, September 17 could bring temporary relief.
For the 18th annual Museum Day, a national program led by Smithsonian magazine, nearly 1,000 museums, science centers, zoos, cultural attractions and historic sites will waive admission fees; visitors only need to download a free ticket.
The event comes at a precarious time for an industry trying to regain its financial footing after the disruptions of the pandemic. Attendance was down nearly 40% last year at many museums across the country, according to the American Alliance of Museums, and curators are trying to attract visitors who might choose to spend their limited recreation budgets elsewhere.
Like many other museums across the country, the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle has not seen attendance return to pre-Covid levels. The museum, where current exhibits range from Afrofuturist costume design to local rock band Pearl Jam, has admission from around $25 but will waive admission fees on Saturdays for day ticket holders. of the museum.
“After a strong spring where we exceeded attendance expectations, the summer has slowed down a bit,” MoPOP spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said. “We attribute this largely to high gasoline prices deterring regional visitors that we might otherwise have expected.”
Drew Ramsey, a security engineer from Phoenix, seeks museum discounts “sometimes obsessively” when traveling with his family. “I’ll comb through a venue’s website, search social media and chat rooms, and check deal sites like Groupon to make sure I’m getting the best entry prices available” , did he declare.
He discovered that some big-name places rarely offer discounts, but that didn’t always deter him: “Why go through the effort and pay to visit somewhere and then skip the main attractions?”
While Covid restrictions and mandatory closures weighed on Museum Day last year, this year’s event coincides with inflation just starting to subside from 40-year highs – which could increase the lure of waived entrance fees. Admission prices to museums, movies, concerts, theme parks and other cultural activities were 6.2% higher last month than they were in August last year, according to federal data.
To provide a break from these financial pressures, venues participating in Museum Day are rolling out bonus programming, new exhibits and other ways to entice visitors and delight them enough to keep them coming back after the holidays are over. admission.
The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Honolulu (adult admission: $25.99) will offer family-friendly activities including open cockpits, scavenger hunts and a Rosie the Riveter costume contest. The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in New York City (adult admission: $15) opens its 40th anniversary exhibit on Wednesday, just in time for Museum Day. And at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (adult admission: $10), visitors can participate in craft activities or take home a free kit of art supplies.
This is the fifth year that MCD has taken part in Museum Day. He expects hundreds of visitors with free passes to show up and “try something new or try something they might not have otherwise,” the spokeswoman said. museum, Sarah Beth Rosales.
According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums derive about 40% of their revenue from admissions, facility rentals, and gift shop sales. “They are certainly grappling with the impacts of rising inflation and the massive financial impact the pandemic has had on their operations over the past few years,” said Laura Lott, President and CEO of AM.
Sixty-one percent of museums surveyed by the AAM last winter reported an average decline of 38% in their net operating performance, and 27% said their performance fell further in 2021, by 33%. on average. Lott said she expects ongoing financial difficulties to persist into next year.
Many museums have reduced staff and programming. Almost three-quarters of museums surveyed by the AAM said they had managed to retain or restore all of their workers, with the often vital support of government relief funds.
But more than half of the museums with job vacancies reported difficulty filling the positions. Employment in the nation’s museum sector stood at around 92,400 in July, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 79,000 a year earlier but well below 103,600 in July 2019.
Some museums have raised admission fees to help shore up their finances. In July, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York increased general admission to $30, an increase of $5, for visitors who are not in-state residents or local students, groups who can always pay what they want. A study last year by discount tracking website Deal A found that more than a dozen major US museums have hiked ticket prices by 20% to more than 60% in recent years. .
Many other museums have kept prices stable while testing new ways to serve the public. In the face of Covid-19, institutions across the country have launched initiatives – many of them free – to meet community needs, and the AAM has found that many of these have continued, including programs online learning, food banks and wellness offerings.
During the pandemic, the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia opened the previously off-limits second floor of its landmark building, including the historic Medical Library, to daily visitors and hosted public and private events in its herbal medicine garden.
In Hutchinson, Kansas, the Cosmosphere, which has the world’s largest combined collection of American and Soviet-era space artifacts, remodeled four gallery areas during the pandemic and added a new free interactive STEM space with admission.
The museum hasn’t raised ticket prices and attendance has rebounded quickly, spokeswoman Mimi Meredith said, in part thanks to the “Sunflower Summer” program that started last year and allowed Kansans to visit free of charge from museums, zoos, historical monuments and other places. this summer too.
The Cosmosphere has also expanded its regular offerings to include programs tied to special days, such as math celebrations to mark Pi Day on March 14. A few weeks ago, the site set up chairs and big-screen TVs in its lobby for free viewings of the Artemis 1 launch, though NASA ultimately postponed two attempts for mechanical issues.
“As families make choices about how to spend dollars that have been stretched more and more over the years, we’re trying to be more of a resource for families to experience things together,” Meredith said.
More ways to get free or discounted museum admissions
If you miss Museum Day this weekend, don’t worry. Many museums have regular days or times when admission is free, discounted or “pay what you want”. And a North American Reciprocal Museum Association museum membership card will get you free admission to more than 1,000 member museums in the United States, Canada, Bermuda, El Salvador, and Mexico.
In some US cities, a group of museums may offer free admission on the first Thursday or Friday of a given month or, like Seattle and San Diego, offer two-for-one deals during the winter when few tourists are in town. Some sites, like the Field Museum in Chicago, offer state residents free admission on certain days. And in Washington, DC, admission is always free to Smithsonian Institution sites, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Zoo.
The Blue Star Museums program offers free admission to active, retired, and veteran military personnel and their families during the summer; the Museums for All program offers free or reduced admission all year round to visitors with a Public Assistance Identity Card (EBT); and many public libraries have museum passes that can be borrowed free of charge by anyone with a valid library card.
“We hope the free admission days will inspire community members, new residents and travelers to visit museums they have never experienced before and broaden their appreciation for the incredible gems that may have always been in their backyard,” said AAM’s Laura Lott — and, of course, may return as paying guests.