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Should museums be free?

That’s the question some in the cultural travel community are asking following news of a class action lawsuit filed in early March against one of the world’s most prestigious, expensive and visited museums.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is accused of deceptive ticketing practices, according to a suit filed by attorney Arnold Weiss on behalf of three museum visitors. The lawsuit charges that the museum leads people to believe the $25 fee is required rather than merely recommended, and seeks compensation for all visitors who paid the full price via credit card over the last few years.

The Met attracts some six million visitors per year, all of whom encounter a sign at the ticketing line trumpeting the museum’s $25 adult admission fee. In smaller type just below is the word “recommended”. As a result, some 40% of Met visitors pay the full ticket price.

The Met has countered that its policy has been in place for more than 40 years.

The suit raises questions about the pricing of museums across the US, which range from free to a recommended fee to mandatory ticket fee. This is in contrast to some countries, like the UK, where all national museums are free.

A 2011 survey of 30 top US museums by The Art Newspaper found that the root of the debate lies in a philosophical divide. In one camp are museums focused on generating revenue, while the other camp believes museums should be free community resources.

Of the museums surveyed by the paper, nearly half do not charge general admission. They tended to be in smaller cities, such as Ohio’s Cleveland Museum of Art and Kansas City, Missouri’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Museums in larger cities, such as New York’s Met and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, tended to charge high entry fees.

According to the survey, “museums in major cities – especially those that attract tourists – by and large charge for entry.  Their counterparts in areas with fewer international tourists or which rely on local visitors are more likely to be free because they need those visitors to return.”

In other words, a city’s “tourism desirability” can make the difference between free admission and a hefty fee.

If more museums were to adopt free admission policies, support mechanisms would need to be in place. Among them would be strong government grant programmes for the arts, more private donations and a revived culture of philanthropy, whereby members of the public participate in membership programs to support cultural institutions.

Until then, tourists eager for free museum admission should bypass big cities for smaller, lesser-known ones, or otherwise target free and affordable options in big cities like the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC (which uniquely have free admission as a national trust).

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