Archive for the ‘Museum access’ Category

The Menil Collection, Houston, TX

May 24, 2015

On a recent visit to Houston, we had a chance to visit the Menil Collection.

menil hallway


It’s a low-key, expansive space, all on one level. Most of the galleries and other public areas are filled with natural light. Wood floors are comfortable to stand on and add visual warmth. It’s one of Renzo Piano’s more successful museum buildings, I think. Best of all, admission is free, thus eliminating a major barrier to access.

menil label_2

I had two major beefs. First, the labels are tiny and low-contrast — virtually unreadable unless you get right close up.

menil no seating

Second, the Menil has a bad case of We’re An Art Museum, So No One Gets to Sit Down. Galleries were woefully short of seating, for no good reason that I could see except It Clashes With the Look.

If it weren’t for these two fundamental access issues, the Menil would be an excellent museum in terms of visitor experience.


National Museum of the American Indian

April 7, 2014



NMAI exterior

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC is housed in a large, impressive building on the National Mall.


NMAI exterior detail

The “sweeping curvilinear architecture,” according to the NMAI website, is meant to help give visitors “the sense and spirit of Native America.”


NMAI atrium dome

The interior is dominated by a soaring atrium that, whatever its Native associations, puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.


NMAI atrium floor

As in the Guggenheim, the atrium floor has lots of space for sitting down, stretching out, and/or attending a lecture or performance.


NMAI cafe

Unlike at the Guggenheim, with its gently sloping spiral ramp, visitors at NMAI have to change floors using either the stairs or the elevator. The first floor is dominated by the restaurant/cafe.


NMAI gift shop

On the second floor, the first thing you see is the large museum store.


NMAI gallery 1

Thanks to the dominance of the atrium, the galleries are relegated to the back half of the museum. In terms of visitor experience, they are nothing to write home about.


NMAI gallery 2

The permanent exhibitions include a standard mix of images, (lots of) text, electronic media, and life-size or semi-immersive exhibit components.


NMAI gallery 3

Traveling and temporary exhibitions tend to rely on traditional vitrines and wall displays.


NMAI wall text

Generally speaking, text is reasonably accessible — large enough and high contrast.


NMAI text 2


One very enjoyable feature of NMAI is that there are lots of places to simply sit, relax, and reflect…

NMAI sit space 1


NMAI sit space 2

… Many of them looking out a window, offering valuable relief to the eye and the spirit.


NMAI window

On the plus side, there is lots of natural light. On the minus side, there is lots of wasted space — empty areas that add nothing to the visitor experience.


Since the museum opened in 2004, much has been written about how successful NMAI is or is not in presenting the “American Indian experience” (if such a thing can be presented in a museum) — not to mention the Smithsonian’s vast holdings of Native objects. Speaking personally, I leave disappointed every time I visit. Too much space, too many bells and whistles, not enough objects, not enough tribes represented. For all the good will that went into its creation, there should be more.

Freer Collection, Washington, DC

April 5, 2014


The Freer Collection is one of the smaller, quieter museums in the Smithsonian complex. The galleries are refreshingly uncluttered.


Freer gallery with seatingq

 Some have seating.


Freer no seating 

Many do not.


Freer courtyard

The museum is built around a graceful courtyard, which offers eye relief as well as a tranquil outdoor space in good weather.


 Freer bench with arm rest

A few galleries have benches with arm rests — a feature that enables visitors to stand up and sit down more easily.


Freer wall label

Wall labels are adequate, for the most part, although the body text size should be larger for true accessibility. The labels should be more brightly lit too.


Freer bad label

One gallery had labels that were designed and hung in a truly maladroit manner — small type, low contrast, poorly lit, and well below eye level for most visitors.


 Sackler label

Meanwhile, an exhibition in the adjoining Sackler Gallery had well-lit, high-contrast labels at a good height. There is no reason the Freer could not do the same. 

MoMA NYC: Still Pretty Dim

November 30, 2012

On a recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art. An otherwise interesting exhibition on the work of the Brothers Quay was marred by a series of ridiculously unreadable labels in a gallery that featured the artists’ dioramas.

bros q dim label

Yes, there’s a label in that murk. The image was taken using the available light in the gallery.

If a visitor came equipped with night-vision goggles, a flashlight, or the eyes of a nocturnal creature, a label might look like this:

q b lit

For most of us, however, it looked like this:

bq black

This is the opposite of access, comfort, and common sense. There is no excuse for it.


Ticket price as a barrier to access, Part 4: Membership on the installment plan

January 20, 2010

Picking up on a thought from Part 3: Why don’t museums offer the option of paying for membership in quarterly or monthly installments?

This would make memberships affordable to a much wider slice of the museum-going public. It’s much easier, financially and psychologically, to come up with $10 or $12 a month than $100 or $120 in a lump sum. 

Payment could occur during the course of the visit. Instead of shelling out an admission fee, members could simply top up their accounts at the membership desk on their way in. Members who didn’t top up within a certain period of time would simply have their membership cards deactivated. 

Installment memberships would help promote philanthropy, because a much larger pool of satisfied members could be cultivated as donors. 

And, it would send the important message that members of all ages, incomes, and types were welcome. Talk about psychological and emotional comfort. Of course, a significant segment of current membership would be made more uncomfortable. But I’m sure new levels of exclusivity would be invented in response. Elitism knows no bounds.

Potentially, installment plans could vastly increase museum membership. Downsides would be that administrative costs would rise, membership services departments would have more work to do, and members-only events would be much more heavily attended. On the other hand, there would be more membership fees available to support expanded services. 

Membership on the installment plan could help to democratize museums while increasing their annual incomes and expanding their donor bases. What’s not to like?

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

January 7, 2010

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.

Ticket price as a barrier to access, part 2: Science museums

January 5, 2010

It’s no secret that museums as a whole are in financial difficulties; some institutions are in deep trouble, or on their way there. A typical — and understandable — response has been to raise admission fees. My question is whether, in doing so, museums are unwittingly imposing a significant barrier to visitor access. 

In Part 1 we looked at admission prices at eight leading art museums in the United States. Now let’s look at seven science centers and aquariums. As for the art museums, this is the estimated cost of admission for a family of four — two adults, one senior, one youth/student:

American Museum of Natural History: $108.50 (for special exhibitions, which take up a good deal of the exhibit space, and are heavily promoted; permanent exhibits are pay-what-you-will)

Boston Museum of Science: $75

Shedd Aquarium: $92.80

Museum of Science and Industry: $47

California Academy of Sciences: $84.80

Exploratorium: $48.00

Monterey Bay Aquarium: $105.80

Average price of admission, family of four: $80 (not including parking/transit, food, gift shop, etc.).

This is 30 dollars more than the average cost of an art museum visit — significant in that science centers are perceived to be more “family friendly” than art museums.

Some additional notes and observations in Part 3.

Ticket price as a barrier to museum access, Part 1: Art museums

December 28, 2009

How can museums, zoos, and other cultural institutions stay in business while serving visitors whose finances are limited? When does the price of admission become a barrier to access?

Anyone who’s worked in and around museums can tell you that free days generally bring in not only a larger crowd, but people who seem to have less disposable income than the usual run of visitors.

When I worked at the Exploratorium in the early 2000’s, the contrast between free first Wednesdays and the rest of the month was striking. It was the busiest day of the month, hands down; the crowd was much more racially mixed and on the whole looked much less affluent. There were more couples who looked to be in their teens and early twenties, as opposed to the usual parent/guardian types with children. There were also busloads of kids and their chaperones from schools and day camps all over northern California that likely couldn’t pay the museum’s group rates.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and get involved with the exhibits as much as any other set of visitors, though. To my eye — and I must emphasize that I have no research to back this up — this was a crowd that stayed away from the Exploratorium on every other day of the month not out of lack of interest, but because they couldn’t afford it.

I suspect that this is true for museums, zoos, and aquariums across the United States. To get a sense of whether this might be the case, I did a quick survey of admission prices at a small sample of leading art and science museums across the country.

Some provisos: I did not include pay-what-you-will museums (the Met in New York, although you wouldn’t know it from their signage or website), or free ones (the Smithsonians in Washington, the Gettys in LA, which do charge for parking but even then are a bargain). I did not take into account free/reduced admission times, package deals, or membership deals and prices. These are just basic, walk-up retail prices.

Based on the general admission price for adults, seniors, and students, I calculated the cost of admission for a family of four,: two adults, one senior, one youth/student. Here are the results for my sample art museums:

MoMA, New York: $68

Guggenheim, New York: $51

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: $65.50

Art Institute of Chicago: $48

Philadelphia Museum of Art: $58

Denver Art Museum: $31 (Colorado residents), $41 (non-residents)

LACMA, Los Angeles: $32

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: $39

Average cost of admission, family of four: $50. Not including parking/transit, food, special exhibits, museum store, etc. 

We’ll look at science museums in Part 2.