When traveling throughout the United Kingdom during my study abroad, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to visit museums for free. In fact, while studying in London, I went to the Tate Modern at least once a week—at no cost! Even in my home state of Missouri, the major museums in both Kansas City and St. Louis are free.
After moving to Toronto, I quickly learned that this is not always the case.
In Toronto, tickets to see the Royal Ontario Museum start at $18 for students, and tickets for the Gardiner Museum cost $9 for students. The Art Gallery of Ontario is free for those under 25, but costs $25 for those 26 and older. I firmly believe that fees such as these make the museum space even more inaccessible for the general public.
In my museums and galleries course, we’ve been discussing the many roles of the museum in society. We know that museums fill a variety of roles in our culture––including existing as a community gathering space. However, we know that museums are more than community spaces with objects. Museums educate on culture and history that could otherwise be inaccessible. They also preserve materials and study the objects in their collections.
The word ‘museum’ itself has many connotations, many of which are negative. Often, museums are considered to be an elite space that only certain groups of people visit. Groups who typically feel welcome in museums are usually well educated and hold a considerable amount of privilege in society. For these individuals, cost is not usually a major hindrance for visiting the museum. But for many others, $9 is too expensive for an afternoon viewing ceramics. Admission fees further elevate the status of the museum and in turn away the general public that they are trying to attract.
All being said and done, this is a tricky situation for museums to tackle. Museums have higher operating costs than ever before. Restoration, storage, and traveling exhibitions all cost money. These rising costs are then passed onto the visitor. Clearly, maintaining their collection and having new exhibits is important for any museum. Without preservation and new ideas museums will soon lose their title as a community gathering space.
As with public libraries and schools, museums are institutions that provide a service to the community. And that service is primarily education. Both schools and libraries receive enough taxpayer funding to fulfill their mission to educate the populous. Why are museums any different?
Perhaps it is not lack of desire to make Toronto’s museums accessible to all, but rather lack of funds. Museums in Ontario do not receive enough federal funding to grow and sustain themselves long term. Allocation of federal and provincial resources is a complicated matter and not solved by this simple blog post such as this.
However, this is an important time to remember the cultural importance of museums. If the cost barrier associated with many museums is removed, visitors will be able to have a better understanding of the collective history of Canada. Understanding the cultures of not just ourselves, but our neighbors is vital.