Museums are for the rich

Mark Walhimer Museum Planning 12 Comments

“Museums are for the Rich”.  Museums don’t need to be only for the rich, but overspending, a lack of humility and a lack of planning creates a “preaching to the converted” scenario.

Today, I went and picked up sculptures for Alcatraz Landing.  I was talking to the sculptor and we were talking about the California Academy of Science, the sculptor said “I can’t afford to take my family”.  The upsetting part, is he worked on the new exhibits.  The sculptor, a well educated working artist, can’t afford to take his family to the museum he helped create.

I blame board members more interested in building monuments than museums.   I love the work of Renzo Piano, but the California Academy of Science cost, $488 Million dollars.  Although (maybe because) it is LEED certified Platinum, the museum costs $58 million a year to operate.  So, if the attendance is 800,000 visitors a year, the “cost” of each visitor is $67.50 per visitor (operating budget divided by attendance).

Attendance to the museum costs, Adult $29.95, Child (4-11) $19.95, a family of two adults and two children costs, $99.80. The sadder part is the real cost is approximately $67.50 per person, so $37.51 of every adult ticket needs to be underwritten by grants and donations. I am guessing that the California Academy of Science is encouraging the purchase of memberships with their ticket pricing.  A family membership is $199 or twice the cost of tickets for one day.  I believe the $29.95 ticket price sends an incorrect message, “education is expensive”.  I am member of the Exploratorium ($90 for a family) their pricing is more in line with what a family can afford.   I think we are “preaching to the converted”.  The only people who can afford to attend the museum, are the wealthy.

How to “solve” Museums are for the rich:

1. Price of a movie ticket   The museum business model should be built around the price of a local movie.  Here is San Francisco an adult movie ticket is $11.00 and bowling is $11.25  (including bowling shoes).  Work backwards, if your want your admission price to be the cost of a local movie, create your Pro forma accordingly.  Too many times museums are built on a “what if” senario and a $29.95 ticket price is the result.

2. Hierarchy of Needs  Given a choice between feeding a family or going to a museum, a family will choose to eat.  I believe in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Often we forget that creativity and problem solving are at the top of the pyramid.  If the vistor’s basic needs are not met, they cannot appreciate the joy of intellectual curiosity.  Sometimes a family just wants a place where mom and dad can hold hands and watch the kids make a painting, “are you giving your community what they need?”.

3. Build Local  If you were to use the same funds as the California Academy of Science, you could build at least 30 local community based science centers.  The effect of thirty local centers would have a greater impact on science literacy than one large center.  Create memberships not individual ticket sales.

4. Workshop attitude I love the Exploratorium.  I am fearful that the new Exploratorium will be another “star architect” project.  The charm of the Exploratorium is the ability to allow visitors “to own” the content.  The experience is not about the building, the “fancy exhibits”, but the content.  At $220 Million Dollars for the new Exploratorium building, I am afraid the charm of the Exploratorium will be lost.

5. Humility  Museums serve their community, I have preached that “Museums are Hospitality”, too many museums, believe the visitor is lucky to be able to visit.

6. Content is Content  I just completed work on a Science Center in Indonesia, total costs for a 25,000 square feet of science exhibits, $1.8 million or $72 per square foot.  All of the exhibits were built in the USA or Canada and shipped to Indonesia.  Spending more money does not get you better content.

7. “Tie-ins” Tie into trends that have momentum.  The Hall of Science “gets it”, they are working with the Maker Faire to create a permanent exhibition space.  The Maker Faire has gone viral, ticket prices at the Hall of Science, Adults (ages 18 & older): $11, Children (ages 2 – 17): $8, including the new “Maker Space”.

8. For Profit is not the enemy  As long as the expectations and guidelines are set at the beginning, for profit / non profit partnerships are a win -win.

9. Respect your staff  My first real job at a Science Center was Liberty Science Center (1992-1994), I was paid $21,000 per year.  The only way I could afford to take the job was my parents helped pay my rent in NYC.  I shiver when I see the salaries museums offer.  I would recommend it is better to save capital costs and pay a living wage to staff.

10. Keep it going  Google has 20% projects, a way to “feed” the souls of the staff of Google (and create fantastic projects like Google Liquid Galaxy amongst many others). Most museums operate at 110%, creating burnout in staff and poor customer service.  Most museums are so busy trying to pay back loans and bonds, there is no energy for staff to give back to visitors.

When I write  “preaching to the converted”, I believe the  purpose of informal education is a place for exploration for people who “learn differently”.   Schools and libraries are places for formal education, museums are places for exploration of personal interests and people who learn in different ways.  I LOVE the Eli Whitney Museum a community museum run by Bill Brown and Sally Hill, last time I was there, ten neighborhood kids were setting up the new exhibits!    Museums are the new Hub of community.


Comments 12

  1. I discussed this very issue with a friend yesterday, specifically regarding the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I’m currently doing a Master’s in Museum Studies, and would love to see some of the exhbits on now at the museum, but there’s no way I can afford to take myself, much less a family of four, when admittance to temporary exhibits is a whopping $25 for adults.

  2. Hi Rebecca,
      I checked adult tickets are $15 and children are $10.  Not too far off from a movie ticket price.  Ticket prices for the Titanic traveling exhibition is $27 for adults and $20 for children.  Traveling exhibition pricing is a tough issue for museums, museums need the traveling exhibition to drive traffic, but often the traveling exhibition rental is so expensive a separate ticket is required.

  3. I am planning to take my 7 year old to the Exploratorium later this month. (I haven’t visited in over 7 years, it’s a long commute and the little one wasn’t quite ready for it previously.) I am sad to hear the museum is going to be a shiny polished plastic monstrosity; at least, that’s what I visualize when I hear ‘new million dollar facility’.    I hope it retains it’s charm in it’s new incarnation.

  4. I went to the academy of sciences on a ‘free admission’ day. Will NEVER do that again!! The line to enter the museum was over a mile long. Luckily I had my four year old in a stroller so he was resting the whole time, and we had snacks and such to keep us busy. I loved attending that museum as a child, but now, it’s so commercialized; it’s more like a theme park. I don’t like the vibe there anymore.  I like smaller community museums much better. Zeum is great, even though it’s in the city.  Academy of Sciences is now a tourist destination, so maybe that’s their goal. But it’s not an attraction for me.  It’s shameful that the board of directors won’t offer free admission to the sculptor so he can take his family to see his handiwork on display there. It’s pretty likely that the board members get free admission! 

  5. Excellent comments, Mark.  I was interested in seeing Maker Faire mentioned.  The prices at Maker Faire are up to $30 for an adult day pass (if bought on site, day of show) and parking is $20 per day.  We’ve had a booth at the Faire for the last 2 years, and this year I was struck by the absence of minorities, excepting what I think of as the “Google minorities” – mostly Asians who have migrated here to work at the high tech companies. There were few African American faces and I heard no one speaking Spanish.  They’ve been priced out of the market.

  6. Mark,

    Thank you for discussing this issue.  What makes your comments particularly incisive is your effort to cite real museums and real examples.  That being said, I believe the situation surrounding the California Academy of Sciences and it’s cost of admission is far more complex than ticket prices.  First, full disclosure:  I was the Executive Producer, and my firm Cinnabar was the lead designer/builder of the exhibitions for the new Academy (not including the Aquarium).  Prior to that, I had a decade long history developing exhibits with the Academy.

    Point # 1.  The Academy is far more than a public venue.  It is an institution for scientific research- those are its history and its intellectual bedrock.  The development of a greatly enhanced public face, as seen at the new Academy, has caused, in my opinion, a wrenching change from the Academy’s core purpose.  This change is still in process.  However, the housing and care of its scientific collections, and the facilities, and the costs of its scientific staff are an existing legacy, and a hugely expensive one.  This is not comparable to the overhead structure of a community science center or similar educational institution.

    Point #2.  Imagination & ambition has its price.  The old Academy, a mishmash of 11 structures cobbled together over 80 years was like an old Chevy- beat up & creaky, its odometer had turned over several times, repeatedly repaired and rebuilt.  However, it ran- put some air in the tires, change the oil time to time, and it kept going.  By comparison, the new Academy is a Ferrari- with an extreme degree of engineering sophistication, and more importantly, a high requirement for knowledge and service(and money) to keep it running properly.  This huge transition was, IMHO, severely overlooked.  During the development process,  folks with experience with sustainable buildings,  control systems, and the complexities of the environmental/technical interface talked about the rude surprise that was coming for the administration of this re-invented place.

    There are other important issues you raise.  The whole question of whether to charge any admission at all is an on-going debate and I’m glad to see it raised here.  In this particular case, you have touched on a key element in how the ticket price was set- what tourists are willing to pay.  That’s a tactic based on desperation, not thinking clearly about the visitorship you want to cultivate.

    However, I find your list of how to “solve” this problems of museums for the rich is overly simplistic. For one thing, the audience isn’t about the rich- I daresay most visitors spend a great deal more on consumer crap, fast food, wasting resources, etc. than they spend at pricy museums.  That is not to say that most of your points are not well taken; yet they should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than being made into elements of an equation.

    Additionally, the list reveals your bias- should all public science facilities be cast from the same mold?  

    Thank you again for your keen observations,

    Jonathan Katz

  7. Jonathan,
      Thank you for your comments.  In the interest of full disclosure is your post here in any way connected to your firm contacting me last week about hiring your firm?

      I stand by my commets, no matter the reasons $29 is not a sustainable admission price.  


  8. For some, informal learning is enough. For those who can afford it, school is an option. Why can’t we have a “school” form of learning in a museum?

  9. “If a typical movie is $12 and a museum is charging $29, I believe the museum is communicating an incorrect message. If a museum receives public funds, they have an obligation to provide an experience at an affordable price, not just those that can afford to attend. Admittance to a museum should not be a hardship for a family.

    If a family of four’s annual income is $22,350 (poverty level), and admission for a family of four is $99.80 (plus parking) that visit represents .4% of their annual income for a trip to the museum. $29.95 only represents 50% of the cost of admission the remaining 50% is underwritten by donations, earned income and grants.

    Museums should be for all as a part of a civil society. The research work of the Academy of Science is invaluable, my comments are regarding who should bear the the financial burden? I don’t believe it should the visitor at the cost of $29 admittance.

    I believe a needed discussion is: 
    1. What are the other business models for museums? 

  10. Mark – this is an exceptional essay. Love the idea of price-based costing back from price of movie ticket – which does set the standard for what families are regularly willing to shell out for a couple hours of edutainment. Recently visited Monticello which, at $24pp was an embarrassment of ostentation and greed – suspect would make TJ cringe. MFA Boston just spent a fortune reinstalling its American art and now prices a visit there increasingly out of reach for normal people. Why? Truthly, some people in your field (and many architects) are part of the problem – constantly peddling costly options that aren’t necessary, don’t always improve the experience and always make it more costly. I have documented many examples of overdesigned, overwrought visitor centers and displays that make me want to run for the door – at huge expense. The Smithsonian’s Museum of Am History is filled with them. My work emphasizes media, interpretation, installation approaches that are all about not spending lots of money to get B+ or better results or, as I like to put it, turning C’s into B’s and B’s into A’s. My preferred clients are what I call high value high need situations where., for relatively modest effort, one can achieve transformational results. Alas, the one pt you make that I quibble with is museum salaries. While yes, most museum workers are underpaid – Director & CEO compensation has generally more than doubled (relative to inflation) since the 1980s and competence has NOT improved accordingly. Should directors be paid 5x, 10x, 20x educated entry level workers at their orgs? You tell me what’s fair. These are supposed to be mission based orgs – and the fact that boards often include corporate CEO’s (who have also jacked up their relative compensation during this period) who I think are gaming the system – doesn’t make it right to import those values where they probably do not belong. No evidence as far as I can tell that any museum director is worth $300k/year  – though perhaps I am wrong about that?

  11. Very interesting blog. I just attended IAAPA and went to the museum day seminars. A lot of the discussion was about reaching a broader audience. They suggested things like festivals that reach the Hispanic market, zip lines and water parks to attract return visits, staying open later for those that work, restaurant service for the older audience…. They didn’t mention reaching out to those with lower income. As a matter of fact they encouraged raising the price. However, they stated a lower average price than what you are mentioning here.
    As a planning/design/build firm we often deal with keeping up with the market place. We can offer lower priced solutions, but our clients often want wizz bang. However, our budgets are much lower per square foot on average than the big name institutions. For instance, the Lincoln Library in Springfiled, IL spent $45 million on exhibits. We are working with another Lincoln museum in Lincoln, IL that feels they need to compete with that museum. Yet, our budget was about 2% of that. We feel that is creativity. How to tell the story to engage the visitor within a fraction of the budget that other institutions get. We believe we are going to achieve that. Currently their museum is free.

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