While everyone has heard the phrases, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and “You can’t get something for nothing,” for some reason those words have not been applied to museums. Over the past couple months we have heard from potential visitors, both adults and those arranging student tours, who have balked at our admission fee ($3 for adults, $1 for students, free for under 6). Now I know that the poor economy has hit many pocketbooks hard: at a time when philanthropic giving as dropped, we not only have to control the climate in an 111-year-old building with a 30’ ceiling, we also need to fix the leaking roof! I’ll let you in on a surprisingly well-kept secret, though: admission not only falls short of assisting with capital improvements, it fails to cover the cost to museums to serve visitors. Estimates vary, but many calculations of the cost of serving one single solitary visitor is around $18-$20, including the cost of utilities and staff time. If a regular business left that large of a margin between cost and earned income, it would be out of business in short order.
Fortunately for us as a non-profit, there are ways to make up the financial shortfall, in particular the monetary gifts of our members and donors. But even more to the point, one thing that sets museums apart from other businesses is that we’re not peddling something as mundane as clothing or food. Those things are necessary, yes, but I would argue that we have something just as vital to a good life. We offer visitors a sense of place; authentic artifacts; reproductions of artifacts that you can touch, smell, and try on; beautiful grounds; a guide to answer your questions; and an inspiring story of a man who succeeded, failed, and tried his hand at everything that interested him. These things – authenticity, beauty, inspiration – are priceless, and that’s why we don’t charge for them.
And so I have a challenge for you. Become a “spy” this summer, a sort of secret shopper, and come for a tour at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum. Pay the $3 or $1 admission (college students are still students!), and then experience the award-winning orientation video, the exhibit guest-curated by a national scholar, and the guided tour of the National Historic Landmark. Afterwards, evaluate your visit: being completely honest, how much was the tour worth to you? If money were no problem, how much would you pay for this visit? For those of you who are truly intrepid, drop us a line at email@example.com to let us what it’s worth to you, as well as suggestions for improvement. I think a visit here is worth more than $3, and I challenge you to come, see for yourself, and tell me if you honestly think I’m wrong.