Museums are institutions for the people, but which people exactly? Middle and upper-class, educated individuals and families? What about low-wage earners, single-parent households, or recent immigrants? During Barbara Ehrenreich’s social experiment, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, readers are introduced to the working-poor in this country. Her fellow workers throughout Nickel and Dimed bring to light an enormous part of the country’s population who do not have the luxury of spending a Saturday afternoon at the local art or history museum. In 2008 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 39.8 million people were living below the poverty threshold. If Ehrenreich had done her experiment in 2008 she would have had to have earned an annual salary of $11,201 to remain above the poverty threshold for an individual under the age of 65. That’s $215.40 per 40-hour work week, at $5.38 an hour. According to the U.S. government, Ehrenreich should have been able to make it on $7.00 an hour…but she couldn’t. So what does this tell us, as American citizens and as museum professionals?
We all probably agree that museums encompass the opportunity to become the cultural and social centers of communities. They teach, they entertain, they create social interactions, and they provide a safe and quiet place for those who go there. But for low-income individuals, who often are forced to work multiple jobs, seven days a week, like Ehrenreich did during her time in Maine, how feasible is it to visit the local museum? I wondered how museums were responding to this problem (which of course has become an ever increasing problem in the last few years of economic bleakness) and what they are doing to become more accessible to their communities. Over the past two years we have visited several museums with corporate sponsored “Free Nights,” usually at science and children’s museums. Museums open their doors for free, often in the evenings or weekends to mainly serve their local community. Target is possibly the largest corporate donor of this type of program. They support reduced price or free events currently at 120 different museums and cultural organizations from Anchorage to Baton Rouge.
I was surprised though to find so many other institutions also working to provide accessibility to low-income families. Some of these organizations work with local government to provide area-wide programs that offer free or reduced admissions. Los Angeles County cultural institutions offer free admission for low-income families receiving public assistance. The families need only present their assistance cards to visit such museums as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, the Ford Amphitheatre, the Japanese American National Museum, the Museum of Latin American Art, just to name a few. The Museum of Latin American Art also offers assistance and scholarship money for their week-long summer art camps for children.
Other organizations offer reduced or free admissions for low-income families but are mainly large institutions located in urban areas. Of course, there is also the small, but publicized trend of eliminating admissions completely. Although it isn’t solely for the benefit of low-income families, it certainly works for the same end result. Museums like the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, also in Baltimore, have eliminated admissions fees.
But do all of these services actually work? Are low-income families more likely to go to the museum on a Saturday afternoon just because it is free? According to Ehrenreich, there are always additional costs and external restrictors; transportation, child care, seven-day work weeks, time constraints and exhaustion. For individuals working seven-day work weeks or multiple jobs, their precious time off may be used for doing their own personal chores like cleaning or food shopping. In the few free hours they have each week, they have to decide whether to do their own household chores (or even get a little extra rest, for that matter) or take public transportation across town to visit the museum.
There are many more obstacles for low-income families than admissions. And what happens when low-income families do make it to the history museum, the historic house museum or the art museum? Would Ehrenreich’s “The Maids” compatriots see anything beyond the enormous windows and endless carpets at historic house museums like Lyndhurst and the Breakers? Would any of the individuals who Ehrenreich worked with see anything beyond the generations upon generations of low-income workers who have done the same work as they are doing right now? And seriously, who has the time and luxury to paint pretty pictures? And what would staring at these frivolous objects do to help them survive? These are the perceptions of individuals who live their lives just to survive.
During the past two years of museum studies, I’ve noticed over and over that there seems to be a definite disconnect between museum professionals and the low-income/working poor population. Opening the doors, or even providing free admission should make them flock in the door…right? We’re giving them everything for free…right? If they don’t come to our museum, they must not want to learn…right? And shame on them for not wanting to learn and better their situation, themselves and their family…right? WRONG.
It is our responsibility as new museum professionals to make museums truly more accessible for EVERYONE in the community. We have to use empathy to understand what ALL audiences would like to get out of a museum experience, and the potential sacrifices they make simply to get there. So what can we do as new museum professionals to help make museums more accessible to low-income individuals and families? Are there things we can do to make our museums a positive resource for those in need of help in our communities?
 DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-236, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008, (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2009) 13.
 Ibid, 43.
 Elaine Heumann Gurian, “Free At Last: A Case for Eliminating Admission Charges in Museums,” Museum. September/October 2005, http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_SO05_gurian-free.cfm; Roberta Smith, “Should Art Museums Always Be Free? There’s Room for Debate, New York Times, July 22, 2006, http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/07/22/arts/design/22admi.html?pagewanted=all; “Free Admission at Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Art Museum Begins October 1,” Press release, http://www.artbma.org/press/documents/FreeAdmissionRelease_000.pdf