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Opinion: museums should be free

Or at least do what they can to be more financially accessible to all
Pique sports reporter David Song at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. An SR-71 Blackbird is pictured bottom left, while an F4U Corsair hangs from the top right of the frame.

Near the beginning of May, I had the privilege of vacationing in Washington D.C. with my parents. Despite being an American citizen, I’d never been to the U.S. capital and was excited to finally visit. Call me crazy, but spending a week in a bustling metropolis with high-rises and ballparks was actually a very nice break from the Whistler bubble.

At the top of my to-do list were both Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums: the flagship downtown location housing the Apollo 11 command module as well as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, home to Space Shuttle Discovery and an SR-71 Blackbird. These places had been on my bucket list since I was a child, and as John Turturro’s character quips in the movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it’s truly “a land of dreams” in there. 

Quick tangent: the Blackbird spy plane entered service in 1966 and could fly across the United States from coast to coast in 64 minutes. That fact will never not be awesome. 

When I began to help my folks plan our trip, I quickly discovered one extremely pleasant surprise: you can visit the Air and Space Museums and numerous other first-class institutions, like the National Museum of Natural History, for free. 

Free? In the capitalist empire of America? There’s no way, right? 

Yes, way. 

It was a memorable trip defined by dozens of hours spent gawking at iconic airplanes, storied spacecraft, dinosaur bones and artifacts from key moments in U.S. history. Not long after my return, I began wondering: do museums have to charge admission fees? Wouldn’t it be better for society if they didn’t? 

The pursuit of (fun) knowledge 

If a museum is free, it immediately becomes a more attractive destination. More folks, especially tourists and people without a robust interest in a given subject, would consider dropping by. No longer would someone need to ask: “would this place be worth it?” They can show up and leave in 15 minutes if they get bored. 

On the other hand, a certain portion of the population (i.e. aerospace and paleontology geeks like myself) would get to immerse themselves in a wealth of enriching and engaging knowledge. These individuals would return again and again with their friends and families. Laypeople would inevitably get dragged in the door by their nerdy buddies and some of them will be impressed, further spreading the exhibit’s reputation through word-of-mouth.

This process ultimately creates a larger and more diverse community willing to support the museum, both financially and otherwise. 

Furthermore, the pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically a valuable endeavour. It should not be limited to our flawed public school systems, expensive universities and paywalled scientific journals.

At each of the museums I visited last month, there were hundreds upon hundreds of elementary and junior high-aged youths on site. Many had come from out of state on field trips. Not all were interested in the Blackbird or the T-Rex skeleton specifically, but all had the chance to discover a new passion or upgrade their trivia game. 

All of these kids had the opportunity to look at something substantial, rather than the vapid and algorithm-driven doldrums of social media. 

Now: all of D.C.’s free museums are supported by the federal government. I’m cognizant of the fact that asking governments to fund more things isn’t always feasible, especially in jurisdictions with more immediate public needs. Each museum is also different: obviously, the Audain doesn’t have the benefit of being a Smithsonian Institution and needs to generate revenue in other ways. 

Regardless, I believe that museums are a critical way to encourage people to learn. The good ones are as informative as any school curriculum while being much more interesting. Accessible and sound public knowledge is a worthwhile investment, especially for the benefit of future generations in a world full of misinformation and slanted cultural priorities. 

I’d personally much rather have my hypothetical son geek out over supersonic jets, military history, sports or even fine art as opposed to video gaming like it’s his religion—even though I like video games very much. 

Expecting every museum in North America to be free is likely a pipe dream, but perhaps there is some way to reach a middle ground and knock admission fees down to more widely accessible levels. I’d say it’s a question worth asking.