Trust and the Metropolitan Museum of Art


New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently made headlines in the art world as the defendant in a lawsuit brought by two museum members for the way its admission fees “deceive and defraud” the public. The plaintiffs argue that the Met uses deceptive language to make people think they have to pay an admission fee of $25, and that most visitors surveyed are unaware that the fee is actually a voluntary donation.

One of countless pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of countless pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Online readers who commented on a New York Times article and a Huffington Post article have differing opinions on several different angles of the story: whether the lawsuit is frivolous, whether the Met (and/or museums in general) should charge for admission, whether it is uncouth to refuse to pay or donate, whether the Met’s language is clear or deceptive, and whether the Met hassles or guilt-trips visitors into paying.

I want to be clear that I support the right and need for museums to charge an admission fee. As a Washingtonian, I am lucky to be surrounded by a bounty of free museums, but I understand that many museums are unable to operate without charging a ticket price.

The Met’s situation is complicated by the museum’s charter and lease in New York City, which states that entrance to the museum must be free. They are, however, allowed to take donations. If the Met needs money, but is not allowed to require an admission fee, is it ethical to make visitors believe they have to pay?

I wish to focus on the effect such practices have on the visitor experience. In comments on the articles, people wrote anecdotes about their visits to the Met.

Some did not meet with any rudeness or resistance from ticket sellers:

“I give $5 — and don’t think twice about it. I’ve never had a problem. I’ve never had dirty looks.”

“I just tell them I live here and I understand that the museum is free…they just nod and give me the sticker/pin.”

Other visitors, conversely, had negative experiences:

“When we pay them less than what they ask, sometimes we get an argument from them, and sometimes we get dirty looks.”

One visitor went to the Met when unemployed and unable to pay the full price, and “I had to directly make the point I was paying what I felt like paying not the recommended amount before [the ticket seller] gave us our tickets.”

Others report being told that they had to pay something:

 “A few weeks ago, I asked the admissions desk if I could get into the Met for free, and she told me ([with] quite an attitude) that I HAD to pay something to get in and that no one can get in for free.”

“After the New York Times published an article on this ‘free’ point years ago (pointing out that it was in the museum’s charter), I went to the Met. The cashiers there angrily and very strongly implied that I was a freeloader of the first order if I didn’t pay their fee…I hated being made to feel like a worm for exercising my right to visit the museum on the very basis specified in its charter.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer left a comment stating that “the Museum’s lease specifies four of the days on which the Museum must be free — Wed, Thurs, Fri and Sat,” though I was unable to find a reference to this policy anywhere else online.

Another commenter referred to theoretical free Fridays:

“Recently, on a Friday, I tried to enter without paying. I told the cashier that I thought Fridays were free. He replied that everyone had to pay something, no matter the day.”

According to one comment, there was confusion among staff themselves about the fee:

“The last time I visited the guard I asked about the Fee himself thought it was mandatory.”

One comment describes a bizarre interpretation of the word “recommended”:

“I got into a fight with a security guard at The Cloisters because they said I had to pay, and when I said I know it’s a ‘recommended”‘  fee, they told me it’s ‘recommended’ that I come to the Museum, but I didn’t have to.”

Others expressed that they are willing to pay, and everyone else should be, too.

“Why wouldn’t you want to throw something in the pot of if you can!? It must cost a small fortune to run that place, restore art and keep up with repairs etc. If you go you should pay something even [it's] only recommended IMHO.”

In examining this issue, it is important to remember that museums are, ideally, trustworthy and welcoming places.

We put a lot of trust in museums. We trust that their scholarship and research are sound, and that their exhibit labels are accurate. We trust them to be unbiased sources of information. We entrust to them the stewardship of buildings, priceless art, rare historical documents, and living specimens. Moreover, we trust them with our money. If we make a large donation to a non-profit museum, we trust the museum to use the gift wisely and in line with its mission statement. And government-funded museums are trusted with tax dollars from all of us.

A museum’s trustworthiness should also be manifest in how it communicates admissions policies to visitors. If a payment is mandatory, it is called a fee. If paying is voluntary, it is called a donation. It is not trustworthy for a museum to be simultaneously free altogether (if you consult its legal charter) and pay-what-you-wish (if you consult the fine print on signage) and paid with a set fee (if you read the signs quickly or consult the front-of-house staff). Charging a fee in order to cover expenses is ethical; deception is not.

The confusion over prices sets up potential for tension that would not exist if the museum had a clear and consistent admissions policy. Commenters who received dirty looks or who felt like “a worm” entered the galleries with their visits already off to a bad start, colored by this initial encounter with museum staff. Yes, the Met is full of treasures, and not everyone’s visit will be spoiled by one interaction alone. Still, if we in the museum world want visitors, we need to make them feel welcome, rather than angry or guilty, when they arrive.

One sentiment alluded to in some comments is that the Met’s practice is ethical because locals (already subsidizing the museum through taxes) know they need not pay the full recommended amount, while tourists who do not know better should feel obligated to pay $25 for what may literally be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While I support the idea that museums should work to be affordable and accessible to their immediate neighbors, I do not think an underhanded approach is the right way to go about this goal. Additionally, if the anecdotes quoted above are true, then even locals have been met with intimidation when they tried to enter for less than $25.

I also want to make clear that I am uncomfortable with the idea that litigation is the answer to everything. However, I am glad that this dialogue is taking place in the public arena, for it is an important one.

Again, I am not arguing against admission fees. I feel strongly, however, that admission fees (or lack thereof) need to be communicated honestly and clearly, for the sake of the visitors and for the sake of the museum’s credibility.

The Met’s situation will be tricky to resolve, because stipulations in the museum’s charter are at odds with the fiduciary realities of maintaining the institution. But the approach in place now is not sustainable, nor does it promote the museum’s trustworthiness or ability to make visitors feel welcome.

*

November’s blog theme is Museums Versus the Problems of the World.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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12 Responses to Trust and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  1. This is definitely a complicated issue…growing up in NYC, the Met in particular holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve gone and visited for as long as I can remember, and yet almost never have paid the full “admission” — I think when I was younger, my grandmother had a membership. In high school (when the cost was $5), I quickly found out that by showing my school ID, I got in free, no problem. Now, as a museum professional, I use my membership to get my little M pin. I think that if you don’t have the ability to pay full listed cost, you find a way to get around it (for better or worse…). And this goes for almost any institution — Chicago museums have special days when you can get in for free if you’re a Chicago resident, the MFA and MOS in Boston have free admission for students — but since they don’t tend to advertise their policies, it favors those who are resourceful/proactive enough to go digging for such “deals.”

    The biggest problem seems to stem from two separate issues: the front-line staff isn’t all given the same information, leading to the disparity in experiences; and let’s face it, even though it’s NY and the Met, $25 is extreme. I don’t think they’d have the same issues if the donation was still at $5. And what about the long-term implications? Of the museums out there, the Met isn’t exactly strapped for cash, but a lawsuit could potentially put a huge dent in their ability to maintain their programs, collections, staff, etc. And could be a very dangerous precedent — after this, would a new museum starting up want to even touch the “suggested donation” idea, or just institute a mandatory fee for everyone?

    Also, for what it’s worth, as nearsighted as my eyes may be, I can still read the “suggested donation” text on the signage at the front…yes, it’s shady that the Met isn’t being more transparent about their policies, but the information is definitely there.

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      Thanks for the essay! I like getting comments! :)

      I think being proactive means finding out when the free days are, printing coupons if you can find them online, asking if there’s a student discount, checking the AAM website to see if the museum is listed as a place that gives free admission to members. Being proactive should not mean arguing with the staff and keeping an aura of calm around their rudeness because you know you’re right but they are trying to charge you anyway. And I do think that if it’s a museum’s free day for everyone, they should not try to charge anyone who goes that day.

      One commenter on one of the articles speculated that the front-line staff get in trouble if they don’t get people to pay full price. If there’s any truth to this, it’s despicable.

      Having spent a lot of time working as a front-line staff person, I have trouble imagining a situation in which, even if I was or thought I was right, I’d be so rude about it. If someone had a question about something like price, I would politely find out the answer for them, not get an attitude with them. So I think staff needs to be on the same page with the information itself but also in conveying it in a professional manner.

      • Catherine Kruchten says:

        Anytime!

        I’d really love to give the benefit of the doubt to the Met on this one, if only because we New Yorkers often get an (undeservedly!) bad rap for being rude or abrasive…I definitely agree that if staff were pressured to make sales, that’s repulsive (although the fact that the policy is apparently inconsistently enforced seems to contradict that being the case). But with all of our experiences in front-line services, whether education/evaluation/visitor services/etc., have you ever been instructed to outright lie/argue/get confrontational with the visitor? Given that comments on the internet tend to skew very positive or very negative — that is, you’d only take the effort to post if you have a particularly strong opinion — I do wonder if a legitimate study would support either side, or if there’s just a lot of grousing from people who feel ripped off (over an admittedly steep fee).

        I do feel, however, that regardless of the Met’s policies or intentions, a lawsuit shouldn’t be the go-to solution.

        For what it’s worth, the Met’s website even has admission listed as “recommended” for all tiers (http://www.metmuseum.org/visit) with the further explanation “To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount.”

      • Laura DiSciullo says:

        I have been told or pressured to lie to customers in both the museum and office world. In both cases, the organization was not trying to rip off the customer. It was more a case of the customer wanting something done consistently, and the reality was that it was occasionally done and doing it consistently was unrealistic, but we were supposed to say it was always being done.

        And in both cases, I was the annoying one who tried to take extra steps to do what we were telling customers we did, as much as possible, even if I didn’t always get coworkers on board with me. I just don’t believe in lying to customers.

        As for getting confrontational, no, I have not been told to do that.

        You are absolutely right about Internet comments. I really enjoy reading visitor comments, whether online or in a guestbook on site, and looking at them as examples of the visitor experience (with the main premise of this blog being *my* experiences as a museum visitor). But I won’t pretend that this is scientifically sound methodology.

        There was one study mentioned in the article, a survey with results showing that 85% of non-Met-members who visited and 65% of visitors were unaware that they did not have to pay the full price.

      • Catherine Kruchten says:

        Also…most of their educational programs are “free with museum admission.” In my mind, that definitely justifies full price for a family with children — from what I remember from elementary school, having weekend classes at the Met was awesome.

  2. So I concur on the issues of a reasonably non-transparent fee policy for all and not because one asks the right question or knows the secret code. In the same way, it irritates me that I know but many other don’t, that if one copies correspondence over legitimately contested phone or other utility bills to the respective state’s public utilities regulatory agency, the previously unresolvable is most often resolved in favor of the resident user.

    A 25.00 entry fee certainly is going to set an economic barrier for many to attend.

    Why can the Smithsonian tap the necessary tax dollars for free admission but the Met not? Or why can the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis offer free admission and the Met not? A reasonable answer is simply how priorities are made for spending tax dollars in New York City as opposed to Minneapolis, St. Louis, etc. In my own utopian fantasy world, if the “public” priortized the free admission to the Met in the same way it prioritizes free admission to public libraries, that public would demand of their government that the Met have free admission and that the expense be prioritized and funded by increased tax or other revenues if need be. According to the Met’s 2012 Annual Report, their revenue from admissions was 16% of their total revenue of 238 million or about 38 million, or less than one-half of one percent of the New York City annual operating budget – or less than 20% of the cost of a single drone aircraft.

    Sorry for the rant.

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      Thank you for the rant. :)

      Anyone reading these comments will now know your PSA about utility bills, so thanks for that!

      A couple years ago there was discussion about charging $7.50 tickets to the Smithsonian museums in DC. The Smithsonian’s response is here: http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/smithsonian-responds-deficit-commission-s-recommendation-admission-fees What really struck me at the time was that the commission recommending paid admission came up with a number of how much the museums would make, based on multiplying $7.50 times their actual number of visitors, without taking into account that the fee would deter many of those visitors from coming in the first place, thus reducing the amount they would make.

  3. It won’t let me reply to your last post :(

    Fair point about the lying to customers, but I’d say there’s a difference between putting on a front of consistent customer service vs. lying about admission policies. And again, we don’t actually know if staff was instructed to misrepresent the admission to visitors.

    I think the problem with the study cited is that it was conducted by the people filing a lawsuit (and therefore had a vested interest in getting a particular result). Furthermore, they surveyed about 350 people. I don’t have access to the numbers or anything, but I’d wager that the Met is one of the most visited museums in the world and routinely gets visitation that far exceeds that — the article also mentions that they’re free to about a quarter million city schoolkids — so their sample size is frighteningly small.

    In general, I’d really love to see the methodology they used and what kind of instrument was involved. My hunch is that these people had a particular agenda from the beginning and were looking for a way to support their case, which is a dangerous way of going about conducting evaluation.

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      Yeah… at some point WordPress makes you start a new comment. Nothing personal! :)

      I agree about the study. It would be helpful and interesting to see a more sound study on this issue (along with how it affects the visitor experience).

  4. frank burns says:

    I used to check out the color of the pins of people coming out and then look for that color outside. A lot of people lay them around just to help others. Other times I have just made a smaller donation without saying anything. Just hand the money and say, there’s my donation, and wait for the pin. If they complain, that is their problem. Their argument should be with the founders, the current board and the charter, not with us. I am not wealthy. Even 5 bucks is a lot, but I still deserve to have access to culture — at least that is what the founders felt. If rich people can fork over 25 dollars and not feel it, all power to them.

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      There is only so much they can do to argue with the founders at this point. They are in a bind not being allowed to technically require admission, but needing the revenue. I love the founders’ idea that everyone *should* have access to culture – but what would the founders have said if they could have foreseen a time when the museum would really need the money? The ideal of free culture won’t work at every museum.

      I agree with you that the argument is with the founders and not current visitors, and it shouldn’t become visitors’ problem in the sense of being subject to rudeness or untrue statements from staff about admission fees. These practices should never be the solution. But what *should* the Met do instead, given that they’re now stuck with the charter?

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