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Should the Smithsonian be free? Perhaps not

Free admission to the Smithsonian Institution's museums and National Zoo remains a unique feature in a city where everything has its price.  But rising costs and fading government support have prompted a call for admission charges.
/ Source: The Associated Press

To fee or not to fee?

Free admission to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums and National Zoo stands out in a city where everything has its price.

But with deteriorating buildings, a maintenance backlog in the billions of dollars and fewer public dollars to spare, at least one member of Congress says no fee makes no sense.

“I, personally, cannot understand why we don’t charge a fee,” Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said at a House committee hearing after a top official said there was not enough money for needed repairs.

In the Smithsonian’s 160 years, it has never cost a thing to visit its museums — stocked with displays of everything from dinosaur bones and the Hope Diamond to the original Star-Spangled Banner and thousands of famous airplanes and spaceships.

And officials said they are not about to start charging now.

“We are not going to be charging an admission fee,” spokeswoman Becky Haberacker said. “We want it so that as many people as possible can come in and see the Smithsonian collections.”

With 24 million visitors last year, asking $1 a head would raise $24 million. “To fork over $1 for an adult, or 50 cents for a child or senior citizen, is not asking a whole lot,” Moran said.

It would be asking a fraction of the entry fees at other popular museums.

In New York City, it costs $20 to get into the Museum of Modern Art and $15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Washington, the Corcoran Gallery of Art asks $8, and the International Spy Museum takes $15. In Paris, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay charge about $10 and $9, respectively.

Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian’s deputy secretary and chief operating officer, said even a modest fee could disproportionately affect the people officials most want to attract: families.

“One of the things that we very frequently hear when visitors tour our museums is how extraordinarily excited they are” that it’s free, she told Moran at the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

For Jennifer Dimmick, of Perry, Ohio, the price of admission couldn’t be beat.

“That was a nice draw coming here,” she said outside the National Museum of American History with her 8- and 9-year-old sons. Admission fees last year in Chicago “cost a small fortune,” she said.

Burke also said an entry fee could hurt the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and art galleries. No other federally supported museum or monument in Washington charges admission, she said.

The Smithsonian gets about 80 percent of its money from the government, most of which goes to salaries and expenses. The institution received $615 million from Congress this year, and has requested $644.4 million next year.

Last year, government auditors said the Smithsonian needs $255 million a year through 2013, about $2.3 billion, to fix what Burke said is a deteriorating infrastructure. Some of its buildings are more than 100 years old; many have heating, air conditioning and electrical problems.

Introducing a cover charge, however, would not be as simple as it may seem.

Four museums — the National Museum of African Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Freer Gallery of Art — are prohibited from charging admission either by legislation or by the gift agreements that created them, Haberacker said.

Additionally, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents — a 17-member body that includes the chief justice, the vice president and members of Congress — does not like the idea. The board rejected the idea of admission fees three times, most recently in 2002, Haberacker said.

“As far as I know, we haven’t revisited the issue,” she said.

Still, some museum visitors said they would pay a few bucks for admission.

“I’d still come, even if I had to pay,” Janell Prysock, a 16-year-old high school junior from Columbus, Ohio, who spent several hours at the American history museum during a spring-break trip.

Steve Chatman, 45, a social services caseworker from Columbus, said he would pay, too. But he said admission should remain free for young people and others who cannot afford it.

“Plus, I think our government needs to stop being so cheap,” he said, adding that if it can pay for military operations in Iraq, it should help out the Smithsonian, too.

The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 with money from James Smithson, a British scientist who willed his estate to the U.S. to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

The price of admission to the Smithsonian Institution and other well-known museums in the U.S. and around the world:

Washington, D.C.

  • Smithsonian Institution (19 museums and the National Zoo): Free.
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art: $8; free for members and children under age 12.
  • International Spy Museum: $15; $12 for children ages 5-11; free for children 4 and under.

New York City

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art: $15 adults, recommended; free for members and children under 12 accompanied by an adult.
  • Museum of Modern Art: $20; free for members and patrons 16 and under.

Los Angeles

  • The Getty Center: Free.


  • The British Museum: Free.
  • Tate Britain: Free, but the museum asks for donations to support the gallery’s work.
  • Tate Modern: Free, but the museum asks for donations to support the gallery’s work.


  • Louvre: 8.50 euros, or about $10; free for patrons 18 and under; free to all on the first Sunday of each month and on July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday.
  • Musee d’Orsay: 7.50 euros, or about $9; free for patrons under 18 and members; free to all on the first Sunday of each month.

Sources: Museum Web sites