Ticket price as a barrier to access, Part 3: notes and observations

One thing that struck me about almost all of the museums listed in Parts 1 and 2: the so-called senior (60 or 65 plus) price is less than general admission, and often the same as student/youth pricing. Senior discounts, which began during the 1960s and 70s when a disproportionate number of older Americans were below the poverty line, and/or living on fixed incomes in times of high inflation, have become sacrosanct. This, in spite of the fact that poverty demographics have now flipped around from those days:

Percent of Americans below poverty line, 2008

Under 18 … 19%

18-65 … 11.7%

65 + … 9.7%  (source: US Census)

Common sense would tell you that the museum visitors most in need of a break, generally speaking, would be parents with school-age children. True, family memberships can be a good deal, but that’s assuming a family can afford to pony up the membership price all at once. Again, this locks out poor would-be visitors, and those who are just kind of scraping by.

Another trend that struck me: every one of the science museums and aquariums in my little survey charges and arm and a leg for kids – even very young kids:

American Museum of Natural History (for special exhibitions, which take up about half the exhibit space): Children 2-12, $20

Boston Museum of Science: Child 3-11, $17

Shedd Aquarium: Children 3-11, $17.95

Museum of Science and Industry: Child 3-11, $9

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Child 3-12 $17.95

In contrast, most of the art museums let in children under 12 for free or cheap, and many have significant discounts for students. The art museums are more family-friendly these days than the science museums. 

This is all based on a small sample, yes, but it’s suggestive. 

Conclusions? I have none, really. Cost is only one factor that goes into leisure-time spending decisions — it won’t keep someone away from a museum if the benefits are perceived to be worth the price, and these museums are after all among the best in the country. Museums are taking it in the neck financially, and admission price is one way they can recoup. Nonetheless, I return to my original, anecdotal observation that free days bring a lot more people into museums, and a lot more people of seemingly limited means. Since the museum-going habit is formed in childhood, during family visits, I wonder if the next generation of museum-goers is being lost in the upward spiral of admission prices.


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5 Responses to “Ticket price as a barrier to access, Part 3: notes and observations”

  1. Ken Peterson Says:

    As a private, non-profit organization that receives zero dollars in public funding for our operations, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has to balance our desire to remain accessible to people of modest means with the need to cover the cost of running a world-class institution.

    Admission revenue and other earned income pays the bills, while contributions, sponsorships and our endowment fund allow us to provide the many free admission programs that don’t show up on the page where ticket prices are listed.

    For example, we offer free admission to all local residents during the first week of December, and year-round through a free pass that locals in low-income communities can check out at the library. We provide free tickets to social service organizations that serve low-income and at-risk populations as well.

    And we admit more than 80,000 schoolchildren a year (plus another 20,000 chaperones and teachers) free of charge each year for self-guided aquarium visits and classroom programs put on by our staff.

    In 2009, free admission programs accounted for nearly 250,000 visits out of our total attendance of 1.9 million visitors. Aquarium members accounted for nother 450,000 visits, and they can come as often as they like for their annual membership contribution — significantly reducing the per-visit cost for a family.

    It’s a delicate balance, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.

    Ken Peterson, Communications Director

    • stevetokar Says:

      Ken, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I do realize that the line between staying financially stable and being accessible to lower income visitors is tough. My admission-as-barrier posts were intentionally simplistic, because I wanted to get at a general trend that I think is worth examining. Some institutions are obviously a much better value for the money than others. I think the Aquarium does great job, generally speaking, in terms of comfort, access, mission-focused education, and general immersive enjoyment. When we visit, we also notice a greater apparent variety of visitors, demographically and economically speaking, than at most Bay Area cultural institutions. So you seem to be doing something right. But, boy, that admission price list is nonetheless daunting when you first encounter it.

      I wonder if anyone has done research on museum admission prices versus the rate of inflation and/or cost of living index over the last, say, 50 years. Has the ratio changed? And in what direction?

  2. Lisa Hubbell Says:

    Steve, thanks for posting this. As a long-time museum professional (and I’d like to think someone with a strong interest and stake in future museum visitation), I started bringing my daughter up going to every kind of museum, at least a couple of times a month. Since becoming an underemployed consultant, I tend to take her once or twice a year, mainly to art museums, and price is certainly a factor. $15+ entrance fees are out of the question, to say nothing of memberships. We’ll get to the Tut exhibit before it closes, most of the others can wait.

    • stevetokar Says:

      Lisa, thank you for reading and commenting. I hope business/employment picks up for you soon. A number of the museums I looked at for these posts offer reduced, pay-what-you-will, or free admission times … Thursday evenings or first Fridays, etc. Something to possibly take advantage of in your own locality. Also, I wonder why museums have not started offering the option of installment payments on annual memberships, which would surely lower the affordability threshold for lots of would-be members — 12 payments of $10 or whatever. You would get all the advantages of membership as long as your payments were current (easy enough to check on at the membership desk when you enter; for that matter, you could pay your monthly membership fee when you enter). Museums would get a larger membership base. What would be the downside?

  3. harpist01 Says:

    Thank you for these statistics; I am currently researching for a formal policy debate regarding the case for free admission to all museums. Thank you again.

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