Money May Not Buy Happiness, But It Certainly Helps

As I read Nickel and Dimed this week, I could not help thinking of a video that one of my classmates tweeted earlier in the semester about wealth inequality in the United States. My upper middle class upbringing made (and makes) it fairly easy for me to forget about the stark realities of wealth in this country. I would imagine that the same can be said for many people working in the museum world, which is why I’m so glad to have taken this class as a part of my museum studies education.

Ehrenreich’s experiment may have been a flawed one that didn’t authentically imitate how people who spend their lives working for minimum wage live, but she did prove what we already know: that it is hard to live on so little money. If Ehrenreich’s experience was not quite authentic, she did meet a number of people in Key West, Portland, and Minneapolis whose lives do reflect the real difficulties of living on $7-9 an hour. She describes Joan the restaurant hostess in Key West who has to live in her van; Holly, the Maid service worker in Portland was afraid to take a day off to get medical attention for her injured ankle; and Alyssa, the Walmart “associate” who couldn’t afford to buy $7 polo shirt on clearance at Walmart on her $7 an hour salary. [1]

This made me think about the implications for museums if at least 15% of Americans live in poverty and 80% of Americans own only 7% of the nation’s wealth. [2] With that in mind, it seems absurd to charge a $20 per person admission fee to institutions that are supposed to serve the general public. Many people could be forgiven for thinking that museums were exclusively for the wealthy, only for those who can afford to get in.

Museums might not be able to fix the poverty problem in America, but they should at least do something to make sure they are at least easily accessible to people whose time and money might be scarce. We do not need be arguing that museums need to charge entrance fees because the masses are ruining the monied visitors’ view of the Cezanne. It is absurd to think that having one free day a month or even a week is making museums that accessible to people who cannot afford full admission. So how should museums respond when their communities are made up of people without much money and people who work long hours? How can museums be more sensitive to the needs of people with differing financial means?

 

[1] Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich, 26, 110, 181

[2] National Poverty Center http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/ and http://mashable.com/2013/03/02/wealth-inequality/

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