Everyone has heard the phrases, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and “You can’t get something for nothing.” However, for some reason those money proverbs 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 fees. We charge $3 for adults and $1 for students, with free tours for children under 6. [2021 Note: Admission prices have since increased to $7 for adults and $3 for students.]
Why Do We Charge Admission?
Now, I know that the poor economy has hit many pocketbooks hard. At a time when philanthropic giving has 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. Not only do Museum admission fees fall short of assisting with capital improvements. They also fail to cover the cost to museums to serve visitors.
Estimates vary, but it costs around $18 – $20 to serve one single visitor. This includes 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 nonprofit, there are ways to make up the financial shortfall. In particular, the monetary gifts of our members and donors help keep the doors open. But 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 provide something just as vital to a good life.
What Your Admission Gets You
The Museum offers visitors a sense of place with authentic artifacts and reproductions of artifacts that you can touch, smell, and try on. We invite visitors to enjoy beautiful grounds and gardens. In addition, we provide a guide to answer your questions. We tell 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 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 admission—college students are still students! Then experience our award-winning orientation video, exhibit guest-curated by a national scholar, and 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 object, how much would you pay for this visit?
For those of you who are truly intrepid, drop us a line at [email protected] to let us what it’s worth to you. Also we welcome suggestions for improvement. I think a visit here is worth more than $3. I challenge you to come, see for yourself, and tell me if you honestly think I’m wrong.