Admission Fees at Universal Museums

I’ve been interested to note in the last few weeks a couple of ideas which may appear to be more closely related than we might think.

First is the general trend of museums increasing their cost of admission. Tyler Green discussed this back in march, when the Philadalphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago both indicated admission hikes were on the way. In his Op-Ed in April for the Philadelphia Inquirer Green argued that the special exhibition of “Cezanne and Beyond” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art” results in two museums. Specifically, “[t]he area of the museum that features “Cezanne and Beyond” is available only to those affluent enough to afford the exhibition charge, while the rest of the museum is more accessible to the lower and middle classes.” This is a problem because the museum “is a nonprofit housed in city-owned buildings. It gets about $2.4 million a year from the city and has received millions more in capital funding, with more on the way. So its willingness to effectively redline certain residents out of its programming is improper.”

I think that is an interesting argument, and an important point to make as funding for a lot of projects is tight right now, but particulary art and cultural projects. Without government funding, or other revenue sources, these institutions may be pricing out younger and lower-income visitors. Now, they may have access to culture at some other location, a concert, via the web, or in another way, but long-term this would seem to harm the museums standing among these groups.

Secondly, I wonder how this trend of admissions increases might impact arguments for universal museums. David Gill has been poking holes in many of the ideas in the collection of essays edited by James Cuno “Whose Culture?”. Cuno of course is one of the more outspoken proponents of the acquisition of objects even where they may have been looted or illegally removed from their context. And scholars on both sides go around and around on that argument, and tend to devolve into their entrenched positions with no real progress being made for cultural policy generally. But one argument I don’t see made is whether these Universal Museums may not even be Universal for the inhabitants of the city they are in. Are these rate hikes espousing Cosmopolitan values? If so, don’t we need to apply them equally, whether that applies to the acquisition of a piece lacking history, or to how many and what types of people can come and view these objects? I think it does.

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2 thoughts on “Admission Fees at Universal Museums”

  1. There is a need for public outreach by the universal museum to underserved communities, but don’t forget that museums often encourage local school groups (often comprised of children from such communities) to visit.

    If I were an archaeologist, I would be careful about making the claim that museums don’t care about local communities. Historically, archaeologists have very poor records in source countries of treating the local populace as a source of cheap manual labor and little else.


    Peter Tompa

  2. When we consider that fees are being charged by the so-called universal museums, it becomes clearer that they are not open for the rest of humanity as Cuno, MacGregor and Philippe de Montebello would have us believe. Not many of us in Africa can afford to pay even a dollar since we do not have that much to feed ourselves. Yet those who have looted or stolen Benin, Nok, Dogon, and Ife
    artefacts in their museums say we can come and see them. Of course, we will not even obtain a visa to visit the United States or any European State if the only motive of our travel is to visit these museums hoarding African cultural icons. Still, the prophets and saints of the universal museums say we are welcome. Ritz Hotel and Waldorf Astoria are equally open to the whole world.

    Even in Chicago, it is doubtful how many persons from the Southside can afford to visit Cuno’s Art Institute of Chicago. These so-called universal museums are clearly temples for the rich Western societies and not for humanity. Would Cuno and co at least admit this?
    Kwame Opoku.

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