One of the great perks of working in the museum field is free entry into other museums. I recently went to Indianapolis, and visited three museums in two days. The cost of visiting these three museums, for just one person, was $51.50. But, being an “insider” in the museum world, I called a colleague before going to one museum, and at the other two I showed my American Alliance of Museums card. In the end, I didn’t pay a dime for museum admission.
Because I do not pay for museums, I never have to make difficult choices about which ones to visit, or think about what would make me choose one museum over another. Nor do I ever need to think about whether my admission money was well spent.
Free admission is partly professional courtesy, but more importantly a form of professional development. Because we can move freely between museums, we can more easily learn from and about each others’ work. Free admission encourages me to be a regular visitor of museums. And once at these museums, I notice how their labels are written, whether the galleries are crowded, when signs are unclear. I look at family guides and membership brochures; I notice which special exhibits are free and which the museum has decided to charge for. And I am inspired: At the Indianapolis Museum of Art I had so much fun with the Erwin Wurm “One-Minute Sculptures” that I am wondering what form something like that might take in a children’s museum. At the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis I saw their end-of-day parade, a fantastic way to gently urge families to leave the museum at closing time.
But free admission sets museum professionals apart from our visitors. Without paying for museums, it becomes hard for us to weigh whether or when cost is a barrier to admission.
There are a lot of things that become invisible to us once we acclimate to a place, or an industry: Once you are immersed in an environment, it is difficult to see it from the outside.
On my first day at The Noguchi Museum, I had trouble figuring out which way to walk from the subway, and could not understand why there weren’t signs placed somewhere. I mentioned something to a colleague who had been at the museum for decades, and she shrugged. Within a few days, I didn’t think about which way to turn anymore. Institutionally, it was difficult to see this immediate barrier to visitation, and so we did not address it.
How can we consider and challenge the things that deter museum visitation or enjoyment? How do we see our our own museums with fresh eyes? Certainly spending time in the galleries, during general visiting hours, is a good start. But even better might be driving there on our day off, waiting in line, paying admission at the door. Imagining, if possible, that we are unfamiliar with the neighborhood, with membership policies, with where the bathrooms are.
I welcome other ideas for how to re-acquaint ourselves with the visitor experience to museums. And thoughts on whether we should all be paying money at the door.