by columnist Tegan Kehoe

You’ve met the rude tourists who come to Boston. Sure, there are good tourists, too, but every city has its own magnets for the bad. These tourists are the ones who think they’re clever by saying, “Pahk ya cah in Hahvahd yahd!” to anyone they meet. They also say, “But it’s the Freedom Trail, shouldn’t all the museums be free?” Usually, the people who say this can comfortably afford the price of museum admission for their family, but that doesn’t mean everyone can.

So what do we do? Library passes, free days, and coupons are great, but each of them has limits. As graduate students, most of us are familiar with the fact that there’s often a huge gray area between “I can’t afford that” and “I’ll pay any price as long as I am confident I’ll get my money’s worth,” but museums often see their potential visitors as falling into one category or the other – it’s the free admission model or the market-value model. The “suggested donation” or “pay as you will” model of admissions has a lot of advantages, when it works the way it’s intended. I have some personal experience with this model, as I used to work at the front desk of a museum with a suggested donation. The front desk was the museum’s general information desk, staffed by museum educators when we weren’t on the floor, but a big part of our job was welcoming everyone as they arrived, counting them, and informing them that our suggested donation was $5. This was part of the museum’s strategy to ensure that donations stayed high. It was clear to me that a lot of visitors understood the model, but many — perhaps the majority — didn’t. I spoke with one couple who were very apologetic for not donating, to the point of shrinking away from me as we talked. “I would if I could,” the woman said, “But I actually can’t.” I remember responding, “That’s okay, that’s why it’s a donation and not mandatory!” but wishing there was a better way to make her feel comfortable.

I also saw a lot of visitors who made fun of the model. “Suggested donation, eh? It’s not really a donation then, is it?” We could make change for people, or take credit cards, and a lot of visitors made jokes to the effect of calling the museum greedy for making it easy to donate. Now granted, this museum had a lot of visitors who enjoyed ragging on the rather exposed front-desk staff to begin with. They were the bad tourists, and if there hadn’t been a suggested donation, I’m sure many of them would have found something else to tease us for (in a way I’m sure most of those visitors believed was good-natured).

At the same time, the suggested donation model seemed to be working. Since the transition from a required $5 entrance fee, visitation was up and revenue from admissions was slightly up, too. It seemed like visitors needed more education on this model, but if more museums adopt it, that may be all the education needed. Museums might also choose to offer a half-page handout on “Why a suggested donation?” for the visitors who are really stuck on the topic.

My position is that every museum that can should offer admission by donation, but determining whether a museum “can” is very complicated. In retrospect, a museum that increased both visitation and income by switching to a donation model has clearly made the right choice, but each museum that makes this change is taking a calculated risk. If visitation goes up and income goes down, at what point is it no longer affordable for the museum? It will vary by budget, of course. While we as museum professionals never forget that the money to run the place has to come from somewhere, it seems that the public sometimes does.

In May 2013, a New York City woman began a petition to make the 9/11 Memorial Museum free to all. When the museum opens (scheduled to happen this year) it plans to charge $25 per adult, although the families of 9/11 victims will be admitted free. The petition currently has more than 85,000 signatures and its has been picked up by several news websites. Clearly, people feel strongly about this. But it is also clear that the author of the petition is not thinking about what makes a museum operate. The petition includes the words, “The 9/11 Memorial Museum is really a National Memorial. You are not charged to visit any other national memorials like the Vietnam Wall, Arlington National Cemetery, or Pearl Harbor.” Yet, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is a nonprofit, and the others she mentions are government-run. Personally, I believe that a museum serving such an important purpose should be making financial accessibility a top priority, but I also believe that operating budgets have to come from somewhere, so the museum would have to be sure it could run on donations if that was what it wanted to do.

The bottom line is, for every conversation each of us has in a museum studies class about models of pricing and admission, we need to be having five conversations with people who aren’t museum professionals about these same issues. Museums changing their policies need to be open and transparent about it. Everyone benefits if the public really understands what’s happening with admissions costs, especially when admission by donation is in the mix.