What's it Worth to You?

Over the last few weeks I have been turning over in my mind and bouncing off colleagues the idea of admission fees, pro and con.  Museum fees are hot button issue for many reasons. Few museums can claim fees are the sole or even the majority of their budget revenue; they are a part of the funding jambalaya that includes—or should include—membership or similar programs, endowment or investment funds, fundraising event proceeds, planned giving gifts, etc. How big a role fees play in funding varies depending on the size of the organization.

There are many arguments for and against charging admission. Here’s an example, though it is focused on art museums the views are pretty much the same in our field. The perceived value argument seems to be the most popular among those supporting fees. If something is free, than it probably isn’t really worth much in the first place or there would be a charge. Those who support free admission say that it provides access to the institution to all and as a public trust, it is important our collections are within reach of all. Some try to skirt the issue by requiring a donation for entry or suggesting a donation. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has gotten in some hot water over their “recommended” admission fee. It seems, some people believe the word “recommended” is confusing for visitors, especially those from other countries.

What to do, what to do? I find that we as administrators are placed in an untenable position by many in the public. I hear a lot talk about how non-profits should be run as businesses. Ok, if you want to do that, you should expect fees – fees for everything. Since our “product” is the experience, the ability to see and study great artifacts and documents, participate in engaging programs, and learn from interesting exhibits, then one should expect a fee for service. From a business perspective, our assets are our collection, therefore we should charge for their “use” by the public. After all, if you go to an amusement park you have to pay to use their rides and view their attractions.

But woe to us who try to enforce a fee structure! I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been approached by documentary makers, authors, government employees, wanting to use our collections in projects they are being compensated for but don’t want to pay us anything. Then there are the people who walk in our door and as soon as they see there is a fee they turn around and walk out. Some people attribute this behavior to our proximity to Washington, D.C. and the free museums there. I’m not so sure. Go ahead and read the story about the MET and their fee issues (Go ahead, I’ll wait.).  Did you see how the attorney trots out the “E” word when describing the $25 fee? That’s “E” as in elitist. Implying museums charge fees to keep the riff-raff out.

I’m not claiming to have an answer. I don’t have a problem with museum admission fees, but then I know exactly how much it costs to keep one going; how much money it takes to care for historic buildings, old and fragile manuscripts, artifacts of various materials whose common characteristic is that they are aging AND at the same time create meaningful ways to share their history. Then the populist in me says everybody should have the opportunity to widen their horizons through visiting a museum, historic site or archive regardless of what’s in their wallet.