Month: November 2015

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Just like the proverbial lunch, museum entry is never free. Whilst the visitor may not necessarily contribute to the cost of their visit, governments, tax payers, sponsors, donors, members and a host of other financial and in kind contributors, all ensure that museums are functional.


In a recent article in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones, suggested that the British Museum should indeed implement a fee for foreign tourist groups. Amongst other things, he argues that these tourists are paying (often hefty fees) for tour companies and guides to get to the museum yet not for the museum experience itself.

The reality in England, and also in my native Australia, is that a large number of museums are government operated and therefore, in part, funded by taxes. Taxes that tourists don’t pay. I agree with Jones, if you can afford to travel abroad, you can afford a museum entry fee.

Unfortunately, when you are dealing with people, such logic is not so simple. Museums run the risk that their venue will be replaced in the tour operators’ schedules by another free landmark, or visitors, aware that they have paid entry, may refrain from making donations or purchasing items in the gift shop. Research would need to be done to determine such an impact.

There will always be the museum enthusiast, like me, who will visit at least some museums whilst travelling and pay the required entry fees. On the other hand, it could be argued that charging admission fees contradicts museums attempts to be more inclusive and deters fence sitting visitors from walking through the door. Not only does recent research contradict the idea that cost the biggest deterrent to museum visitation, there are ways to reduce or avoid paying entry. Here in Boston, many museums provide opportunities to visit museums for free or at a heavily reduced price at certain times of the week or month. For example, entry to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) on Wednesday is to pay what you wish and the Harvard Art Museums offers free entry to Cantabrigians on Saturday mornings. Whilst the MFA is busy on a Wednesday, in my experience, it is certainly well frequented at other times too.

Harvard Art Museums

Ultimately, as Jones states, it would be great if museum entry were free, to everyone, all of the time, but that is not viable in protecting these great institutions in the current political climate. The money to run ‘free’ museums must come from somewhere, and the sheer number of volunteers in museums around the world shows that museums are not a thriving financial enterprise. It will be interesting to follow the British Museum and observe the impact of tourist entrance fees, if any, on visitation, reputation and other forms of income such as donations.

What can I learn about Museum Engagement from Harvard Yard and Michelle Obama?

What can I learn about Museum Engagement from Harvard Yard and Michelle Obama?

This week I returned to Boston after two months in my native Australia. I was happy that the weather is still very pleasant and that my Halloween weekend involved apple picking rather than the wintery mix of last year. Fortunately, the weather is also still beautiful enough to spend the afternoon reading a good book on the lawns of the Boston Common or Harvard Yard.

Each time I pass through Harvard Yard, I ponder my life journey and Michelle Obama’s speech at the opening of the Whitney Museum earlier this year. In short, Obama discussed the need to make public places like museums and the White House welcoming to all, and quash thoughts that certain people don’t belong there. Whilst Harvard Yard is part of a private university, it is very much a public space; it receives 45,000 tourists each year on the official Harvard tour alone. As a non-Harvard student or employee, I feel welcome and comfortable in the space, which is now one of my favourite hangouts. What I ponder is how I came to be so contented in the Yard and how it can be used in my work as a museum educator.

I grew up in a regional Australian community where tertiary education was undervalued, city living was seen as crossing the floor, and engaging with an arts and culture was seen as pretentious. I have spent much time contemplating this divide and have concluded it is complex beyond the time it takes to have my morning coffee or an evening glass of wine. My family were low to middle income earners and, at times, growing up, finances were tough. We didn’t visit museums, go to the theatre or holiday often and I was known as the “reader” in my family.

Over the last fifteen years, I have moved to the city, acquired a tertiary education, travelled extensively and begun a career in Museum Education. I have not read as much as I would have liked. Last year, I moved to Boston. The first time I sat in Harvard Yard, enjoying my lunch, reading a book and curling my toes around the grass, I felt an immense sense of pride. I had built a fulfilling and stimulating life against the social discourse of my upbringing.

Obviously, in 2015, this is easier than it would have been one hundred years ago as a woman, or in the absence of adversity, discrimination and stereotyping based on my religion, sexual preference, ethnicity or disability, yet for me it was still a grand achievement.

Furthermore, my siblings would not feel comfortable in the Yard. They would be the people Michelle Obama referred to who would say “that’s not a place for me”. Whilst part of this is self-imposed, there must also be external factors that incite such beliefs. Whilst I don’t yet have the answer, I continue to reflect upon the last fifteen years to determine how I overcame such a mentality. Better still, in my work as a museum educator, how can my own experience help to break down barriers and improve engagement, interest and accessibility for regional and low socio economic communities.

In the meantime, I’m taking my book to Harvard Yard to enjoy the last of the sun and warm weather.