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Britain’s Museums One Step Ahead- Again

April 13, 2008

I recently wrote about museums admissions policy here in the United States and how I believe that museums should move towards the model that has been adopted in Britain and is having a trial run in France, that is making museums, especially art museums, free.  Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes echoed some of my sentiments, citing comments from the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City to the effect that they were noticing a downturn in attendance of  20- and 30-year-olds.  Both Green and I are not shocked at this revelation considering it costs $20 to get in the door at MOMA.

Today’s Sunday Chicago Tribune had an article relating again directly to this issue of further involving 20- and 30-somethings in the cultural landscape and their cultural heritage.  According to the article, some London museums are participating in a late night programs, events that mix culture with standards of evening entertainment.  As the author of the article, John Lee, put it: “It’s 9 p.m. at London’s cavernous old Natural History Museum, and I’m leaning against a marble column, beer in hand, under the watchful eye of a giant fossilized fish.”  

This got me thinking.  I know that monied corporations, or even parents, can rent out the Field Museum for a corporate event or a birthday sleepover, so why not have late night modeled after the British?  The thought of sipping a Goose Island 312 under the Field’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, Sue, sounds pretty fun and certainly unique.  Chicagoans are rightly proud of their cultural institutions like the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institute, we also spend more money per-capita on alcohol, by far, than any other city in the U.S. so why not try out a late night program that makes these institutions a fun, social place to hang out?  Everyone needs a break from the omnipresent plasma TVs, blasting music, and unremarkable decor that plagues so many bars, making the name the only thing different about each one.  

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) already has a program like this in place, their First Fridays.  On the first friday of each month, the museum stays open until 10 at night and has live entertainment, a cash bar and free hors d’oeuvres, well, free with the $15 admission (or $10 in advance, $7 for MCA members).  The MCA is also realizing its potential as a meeting place for singles as well, as they have “the world’s only iMac G5 digital dating bar,” whatever that is.  Regardless, the MCA is on the right track of bringing more people into the museum and showing that it can be an active, vibrant, community meeting place.  Lowering or eliminating the cover charge would only assist this goal.  

Chicago is far at the forefront of the three major American cities (LA, New York, Chicago) in its museum admission policies.  While most museums offer free or discounted admission times (usually underwritten by a corporation, since the federal government long ago checked out of financing), Chicago has the Museum Passport, available at all Chicago Public Libraries (these are given out first-come, first-served, though).  Chicago also experimented with free admission during the entire month of February for several museums.  We’re on the right track, let’s keep opening the doors of our cultural institutions.

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