Forced Critical Reflection: Museums

I had two other WWOOFers with me on the farm in South Carolina. One of these had a tendency to call people out on environmental wrongdoings and general foolishness. Let's call him Dave. Make a stupid play in rummy, he’ll mock you. Fill up a days-old plastic jug with water, he’ll remind you that it will give you cancer. This irks me to the point where I almost use that plastic gallon as a water bottle just to spite him, deeming cancer a small price to pay. At that point I decide to calm down and just enjoy not needing to extend the effort to consult my own conscience.

My last day in the field, and I'm outlining the rest of my trip, childishly excited about the Smithsonian. I explain that I hadn’t been to any museums yet because they charged to get in, and I refuse to pay admission fees because I don't agree with charging people to access their cultural heritage (also because I didn't have a ton of money).

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Cue Dave. “I don’t know if that’s good thinking. If each dollar is a vote, wouldn’t it be better to buy things you care about, rather than on food and drinks or whatever?”

My confirmation bias and I go all ivory-tower on him, and I explain that admission prices don’t even touch what it actually takes to run and keep a museum (anywhere from 1-4%).

“So how do you support the museums that don’t charge admission?”

I’m frustrated that he won’t let me enjoy self-righteousness without serious critical examination. I reel off a few ways I normally rationalize my refusal to pay for museums to myself, but he’s broken the spell. The conversation ends, but I can’t get it out of my head. I think I’m right, but can’t verbalize it in any way that satisfies either Dave or that little Dave voice in my brain, formerly known as my conscience.

Ultimately, I think I’m right because the basic philosophical stance is sound, if contingent on my view of the purpose of museums verses private business.A beer or a meal is a commodity. I support the business practices of the institution providing that commodity by purchasing it. That is, "each dollar is a vote." Since I believe what museums have to offer is not a commodity, but rather an essential element in the education of a population, I don’t want to support the business practices of museums requiring a monetary prerequisite. Yet when I come to the application of this philosophy, I’m acting as if art is a commodity, only engaging with it when it suits me.

Currently, money is our best way of getting our voices heard, however I hate it. Neglect to attend those museums that aren’t free doesn’t mean I’m making a stand, it means I’m an unheard voice with an extra Harriet Tubman looking for the nearest craft brewery.


I’m not sure how to reconcile this. As usual, as a less-than-financially-comfortable American, I feel slightly powerless. I’m going to highlight some art museums that don’t charge admission as a way to support them while I figure out how I can actually support them.

Here are some notable museums offering free admission.

I'd like to also throw in a note about membership, for all y'alls who live in one place. I was a member of LACMA while I lived in LA, and it encouraged me to get out and see the city as well as the museum, which had a nice little collection. It's often a path to continuous and more meaningful engagement with museums.

The Obvious:

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Yes, I also get annoyed when I google free museums and all I find is Smithsonian this and Smithsonian that. But it's really because they do great things the right way. I wish I’d had two more days and two more feet while I was in DC because the National Gallery took most of it out of me. I saw art that knocked me completely off my feet, and they were running a great program called Sketching is Seeing. The friendly attendant gave me a sketchbook, pencil, and a short schpiel, then let me loose in the galleries for a different way to engage with the art. In the National Museum of African Art a woman was wandering around with some “lesser” artifacts for us to get our hands on; I got to feel vestiges of cow hairs on the leather sole of a beaded sandal.


Confession wherein I lose all credibility. I’ve never been to the MET. My experience with New York is limited short meetings followed by indian food, and one nice wander through Central Park. I’ve never had the time to hit any of the big museums, boroughs, or even the metro system. Yet I want to include the MET because it's hugely influential, and the $25 admission fee is a suggested donation. Of course, if you buy online to skip lines at one of the most popular museums in one of the most populous cities, you pay full price. These tactics annoy me, but I'll let them slide.

The Little Sibling:

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The Virginia Museum of Fine Art

DC might be the capital of the US, but Virginia has its own capital city with its own remarkable art museum, where they don't charge admission! The Art Deco/Art Nouveau collection was unbelievable; I almost didn't make it through.

The Lakes:


I’m grouping these museums because I love them all for mostly the same reasons. Detroit is another I haven’t actually been to, but they’ve got the same general history and definitely a bigger, more famous, collection. All three industrial lake cities were thriving at the time when 19th and 20th century art was at it’s most available, and as a result have incredible collections. I especially love that all three cities are suffering under the weight of postindustrial America with a dedication to their museums, which continue to be free to the public.

The Cleveland Museum of Art

The Toledo Museum of Art

The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

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Finally, they’re all so close to each other! My next road trip dream is the Lake Erie Arts tour, where I get to see all of these museums in a row, ending in Detroit to explore their excellent art scene and a truly appalling amount of babaganoush.

How do other people feel about this? Not the babaganoush (I don’t care what you think), but there are a lot of sides to this, and I think it’s worth discussing. Should art museums be free, and is there an effective way to voice this opinion?