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How to Find Great Museums That Don't Charge

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip for February, 2003
Vol. 6, No. 9: How to Find Great Museums That Don't Charge

Museums are a treasure trove of the world's cultural history. There are museums for art, for industry, for craft, for ethnography and culture. Museums can feel very cheery on a cold winter day, surrounding yourself with beautiful art or fascinating history...but some museums charge quite a bit of money to get in.

Here are several ways to get into museums without robbing the bank:

* Find those that are free (or have admission by voluntary donation) all the time. Ask at Chamber of Commerce visitors' booths or highway rest stops, get travel guidebooks out of the library, check out newspaper calendar listings, and visit city-specific websites. Many of the world's greatest museums are publicly financed and don't charge anything. This includes the vast holdings of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and its branches elsewhere (such as the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City. And all around the country and the world, some of the best small museums are owned and operated by colleges or universities. Many, many superb collections on campuses are open for free.

* Remember that museums may not be called museums. For instance, the Chicago Cultural Center (free) and the New York Historical Society ($6 for adults) both have extensive exhibits

* Go on the free day: Many museums open their doors to the public once a week or once a month. It'll be crowded, but the price is right!

* Give less than the recommended donation. If admission is by voluntary donation, you have to give something. But just because the sign says "suggested donation $10," doesn't mean you have to pay that much. Give a dollar or two, if that's what you can afford or that's what you think it's worth (and then provide some extra income to the museum by stopping at the gift shop on your way out).

* Visit alternative exhibit spaces that don't charge. The main libraries in many cities often have great exhibits. Art galleries are nearly always free. So are many factory tours. Even many corporate and government offices have art exhibits open to the public.

* Go with a member. Museum membership often includes the right to bring a guest. So make friends with the right people!

* Become a volunteer. Just as concerts rely on volunteer ushers, many museums rely on volunteer docents. Of course, this only makes sense if you're seriously interested in the museum's collections. You get training so you can explain the collection to others, put in a few hours a month as a volunteer, and get to visit to your heart's content.

* Some large retailers may have exhibits. In my area, the sprawling Yankee Candle flagship store includes several historic model trains and a room with an exhibit on colonial-era candle making.

* Attend functions in a museum. Recently, the Amherst (MA) Chamber of Commerce had a free members' meet-and-eat mixer at the brand new Eric Carle Museum (dedicated to children's book art). Needless to say, I was there--and got to see all the current exhibits in the inaugural show.
The museum is next door to another museum, the National Yiddish Book Center, where I've often attended readings and other events, and always welcome the chance to look around.

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