Last week the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it is ending its universal pay-what-you-wish admissions policy in favor of a mandatory $25 fee for all adult visitors who cannot prove they are residents of New York. With this new standard, the Met creates a significant barrier to one of the most acclaimed collections of art in the world.
The Met’s announcement has been met with emphatic declarations that museums should be free. Museum professionals, museum scholars, and museumgoers are defending the idea that museums have value that should be shared with everyone regardless of income or residency and immigration status.
Part of the uproar over the Met’s decision is that, for so long, it was dedicated to being a free resource to everyone. The Met’s historical motivations—to instill white middle-class values and behavior in new New Yorkers — and its historical mechanism — the art of Western civilization — are elitist at best, but those motivations and that mechanism don’t determine what visitors do when they walk up those steps on Fifth Avenue. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings look nothing like antiquities, but he learned about art from visiting the Met, an opportunity made possible by the fact that it was free.
All museums should be free because — regardless of institutional intentions — when they are free we can use them in ways that better fit our lives, and thus they become more accessible practically and intellectually as well as financially. When museums are free we can see one painting everyday on our lunch breaks. We can come back again and again to see all of the things we’d miss in just one visit. We can go on cheap dates. We can take our children and not worry about wasting our vacation budget if they throw a tantrum after 10 minutes. Students can come on school trips and learn not just about art or history or science, but also about experiences and institutions — museums themselves — that might otherwise feel closed off to them.
Whether we go on a tour with an expert or simply look at a diorama, whether we come for five minutes or we stay for five hours, we use these spaces in meaningful ways whether or not we learn something in the way the museum prescribes. In any of these visits, we’re thinking, however tentatively, about the meaning of objects and the stories that are — or aren’t — told by the things that surround us everyday. We’re starting the work of critical thinking, and we are able to do that because we can come in the door without worrying about cost.
There is still work to do to dismantle the elitism and the racism and sexism that are endemic to museums and the fight for museums being free is not going to solve this problem. It’s not an easy fight to win because funding for museums is scarce. But free admission is a way to begin opening profound spaces up to diverse uses and experiences that capture the power of objects to communicate regardless of whether they teach us something specific or whether they simply fill us with awe, wonder and a sense of our shared humanity.
Here in Philadelphia, we have an unparalleled tradition of making the artifacts of history, art, and science free for everyone. Carrying the torch today are museums like the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Contemporary Art, and the Fabric Workshop among many others. These places are not the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are not places whose facades get plastered on national sporting telecasts as representative of our city, but they are representative of our city. While the PMA should also be fighting to expand its free hours, we can look at these specialized places that are already free and see immediately the kinds of unexpected experiences that take place when we don’t ask visitors to pay.
Mabel Rosenheck is a museum scholar and historian. She currently works at a Philly museum. @labelmemabel