Founded in 2014, Museums for All is a nationwide, cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) aimed to remove financial barriers for museum visitors, encourage families of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly, and build lifelong museum habits. Museums for All encourages community partnerships, peer to peer learning, and serves as an entry point for museums to address equitability. Today there are over 960 participating museums across the country, and the US Virgin Islands with a total of 4.5 million people visiting museums through this program since it began.
Ithaca’s Sciencenter was one of the first to join Museums for All in 2014
“Back in 2013, the ACM board at our annual conference adopted the mission statement that all children deserve access to high-quality museum experiences,” said Brendan Cartwright, Museums for All Program Manager. “At the same time, IMLS was looking to put a program together that would increase access to museums by removing financial barriers.” In fact, ACM had many of its members already offering free or reduced museum admission through SNAP or EBT cards. “ACM and IMLS entered into a cooperative agreement where we would take the approach that was already happening at individual museums and codify it by building a framework and making it available on a national scale.” The program was piloted in children’s museums and later expanded to include museums of all disciplines.
“It launched with the goal to make museums as accessible as possible and remove any financial barriers. This initiative particularly looks at financial barriers for people, but fit in well with organizations as they look to self-assess how they can make their museums as accessible as possible.”
Participation and Eligibility
Museums join Museums for All once and can exit the program at any time. The registration process is open to all museums, including for-profit museums. Museums for All uses a categorical list of museums generated by IMLS. “If your museum fits within one of these categories, then you’re eligible to participate,” said Cartwright.
To participate, museums offer reduced or free admission to individuals and families that present a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, and a valid form of photo identification. Reduced admission must be $3 or less for up to four people per EBT card. Visitors do not have to register for this program in order to participate.
“One of the things that set this program apart from other similar access programs like Philadelphia’s Art-Reach and Mass Cultural Council’s Card to Culture is that you can show an EBT card from any state to any participating museum,” said Cartwright. SNAP is administered on a state-by-state basis resulting in different-looking cards. “So if someone from New Jersey wants to visit a participating museum in New York, they would be able to.” Included in the Museums for All toolkit is a PDF with a sample of all the cards from different states. “We figured it was the least intrusive way to establish a financial need. Some museums ask to see the physical card to apply the discount but others won’t ask to see it.”
Museums that don’t normally charge admission can also participate in Museums for All. “Primarily, it’s about making that active invitation to the community,” said Cartwright. “It can also serve as an opportunity to look for other areas in their operations that they might reduce some barriers like with membership or in the gift shop.”
Program guidelines also include clearly publicizing Museums for All by posting information about access on museum websites and other collateral materials, use of the approved Museums for All PR toolkit resources for branding guidelines in all communications, training for sales and front-line staff, and regularly reporting visitor numbers.
Participation is intentionally designed to be flexible. “We’ve set a baseline, but we encourage museums to feel free to build on it with whatever makes sense for their communities. Some museums will accept WIC [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] in addition to SNAP/EBT. Other museums go even further by offering discounted memberships,” said Cartwright. “It’s part of the flexibility of the program…it’s ready to go where someone can just show their EBT card and gain access to the museum or museums can really emphasize it where they go out into the community, talk with their SNAP office, and let people know to come to their museum. You can participate as little or as much as you want. We want museums to be responsive to their communities.” Many Museums for All participants use the program to broaden their visitor base and reach out to underserved communities. “Whatever works best for your museum and your community works for us and we will try to support however we can.”
Resources and Support
In the Museums for All Toolkit (available in English and Spanish) prospective participants can listen to or read the transcript of a webinar that introduces the program with speakers from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Boston Children’s Museum, and Zimmer Children’s Museum explaining why they chose to participate and how Museums for All works in their institution. The toolkit includes branding, editable bookmarks, postcards, sample press releases, social media images, and training recommendation guidelines. Training recommendations include the importance of understanding SNAP/EBT, sensitivity training, and how to respond to visitors that don’t qualify for Museums for All by offering other ways the museum supports access and inclusion like other free or reduced admission hours.
“We also try to bring together museums as much as possible through virtual hangouts, sending newsletters that share experiences and stories and what makes things work or get input on areas where something isn’t as successful,” said Cartwright. “These peer-to-peer learning opportunities have been pretty successful with a dedicated core of museums.”
Museums for All encourages partnerships between community groups, schools, and other museums by sharing materials and sharing social media content and email lists or by providing brochures to waiting rooms and to the local SNAP office.
“As the program’s gotten bigger with more museums joining, we’ve begun to identify cities that have three or more participating museums and we call these cities ‘Hub Cities,’” said Cartwright. “We try to give them a little more resources and try to get them to work together. ‘Hub Cities’ have more opportunities to do more cross-marketing and outreach like perhaps a family starts at the children’s museum and then as the children get older they get more interested in the science or art museum but then the whole family wants to go to the zoo, etc. It’s a way to expand on the cultural offerings when more museums participate in one city.”
There are about 70 Hub Cities with three in New York State; NYC, Rochester, and Ithaca with the Sciencenter being one of the very first museums to join.
"The Sciencenter adopted the Museums For All initiative early on because we strongly believe in providing all members of our community with access to hands-on science experiences,” said Kelly Barclay, Public and Media Relations Manager at the Sciencenter. “In 2022 alone we've had over 1,500 people visit the museum using MfA entry. This program allows families who cannot afford the price of admission a chance to explore, connect, and create with science at our museum. We've received great feedback from our community regarding this program and we will continue to prioritize it at the Sciencenter."
Since joining in 2014, the Sciencenter has seen almost a total of 18,000 visitors using the Museums for All program or representing 3% of total visitors. Most of those visitors turned out to be graduate students. “I think that they were expecting one type of visitor would be taking advantage of this program and then were surprised about who was actually coming throught the door. We give training and we really try to emphasize that you cannot make assumptions about why someone might be eligible but you’re there to share the museum with them.”
Cartwright conducts and shares quarterly attendance reports through a reporting page on the Museums for All website. “It varies a little bit but overall about 3% of total museum visitors are using the Museums for All program. That percentage is a bit higher in children’s museums averaging closer to 6% and history and art museums are a bit lower averaging closer to 1%. But regardless of size or geographic location, that 3% is pretty solid across the board.
In New York State, there are now 62 participating museums, which combined have served 53,435 people through the program. Museums in New York State average Museums for All attendance is at 1.5% with the highest percentage of total visitors at the Utica Children’s Museum with 6%. New York State is third overall with the most participating museums.
According to a 2018 report, 45% of museums join Museums for All as a way to help them provide better access to community members and 27% join because the initiative fits the museum’s mission, vision, or larger diversity, equity, access, and inclusion plans.
“I joined ACM in November 2021 and one of the reasons that I was very interested in this role and what they were doing was because of Museums for All,” said Keni Sturgeon, Director of Strategic Initiatives for ACM. “What’s been interesting to me is those who’ve been members that offered low-cost admission are now exploring reduced membership options. Museums are using Museums for All as a conversation starter about what it really means to be an equitable museum around the financial side. To me, it’s been really interesting to see those conversations emerge and people reaching out to Brendan or sharing with others in the virtual hangouts about the work they’re doing in that area and it’s really wonderful to see.”
In the 2018 report, more than 25% of museums saw an increase in attendance, development revenue, and program and membership subscription. 20% reported significant shifts in visitor demographics.
While IMLS and ACM don’t distribute any funding to museums through this program, participating museums are allowed to fundraise or seek sponsors on behalf of Museums for All at their institution and 30% of museums stated that it was actually a revenue driver to join the program. “Because Museums for All is about removing a financial barrier, you’re not necessarily giving up a full-price admission by offering it for $3 or less because your museum is reaching people that weren’t coming before. There’s usually no loss of revenue and some build development opportunities around the program.”
Where to learn more
Museums interested in Museums for All can visit museums4all.org or email questions to Brendan Cartwright at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also recommends taking a look at the current list of participating museums. “If a museum is curious about the program, they can visit our website to see if any of their neighbor museums are participating. I would encourage them to reach out to learn more about their experience.”
Visit https://museums4all.org/ to learn more.