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Reflections on Welcoming More Visitors with the Museums for All Program

December 3, 2019

By Ruth Hyde, Membership and Visitor Services Manager, Museum of Natural and Cultural History

In the summer of 2015, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene was delighted to join the Institute of Museum and Library Service’s Museums for All program and offer reduced admission to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card holders, those receiving food assistance. Museums for All is a national, branded access program that encourages individuals of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. Setting our Museums for All admission rates at $1 for individuals and $5 for families—a significant discount from our already affordable general admission rates of $6 and $12—we looked forward to welcoming more visitors for whom cost had been a barrier to the museum.  

Are people taking advantage of the program? Absolutely! And they are doing so in greater numbers each year.

But we saw a slow and sporadic response at the outset. Upon initial launch, we translated the official Museums for All (MfA) program language into Spanish and produced a bilingual poster for distribution to low-income serving sites around Eugene and Springfield. However, describing the program in both Spanish and English made for a text-heavy poster that likely discouraged readership, and there was no takeaway component that allowed people to keep the information with them and share it with their families. In addition, since the MfA program language was market-tested on a national scale, it missed certain elements that would speak more directly to local audiences—using “EBT card” instead of “Oregon Trail card,” for example, and promoting the nationwide initiative rather than our specific museum and all it has to offer.   

This strategy translated in very sporadic use of program and fairly uneven staff buy-in for the first year. Given few transactions using the discount, front-end staff were forgetting the discount process, leading to awkward conversations at admissions. We eventually recognized that simply having this discount was not the same as being welcoming.

Our museum wanted to be welcoming. So we realigned our approach.

Based on feedback from front-end staff, we learned that referring to an “EBT card” or “SNAP benefits” wasn’t always effective in communicating with visitors at the admission desk; most MfA program constituents were referring to their “Oregon Trail” card. We updated our marketing language to reflect this, and also shifted our strategy from promoting MfA as a standalone program that was primarily identified by its national brand. Instead, we began consistently incorporating our new, locally-tailored program language, adding a line about reduced admission for Oregon Trail cardholders to the standard admission language appearing across all of our marketing materials. This allowed our exhibits and programs to be the front-and-center message while simultaneously communicating the MfA benefit—a strategy that has proven much more engaging to the program’s target audiences.

Although MfA, as an initiative of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is designed to target families, we are seeing equal numbers of young adults and seniors use the discount—an ideal outcome since our museum offers interactive experiences for all ages. The program has translated much better to a broad age demographic than we may have intended, but we are pleased with the result!

What have I learned? My biggest take-away is that being successful with this type of program takes time, ongoing relationships, and an all-in approach from public-serving staff, communications staff, volunteer exhibit hall interpreters, and program coordinators. With data that show us that simply offering free admission doesn’t significantly attract a more income-diverse audience, I’ve learned how critical is the need to refine our strategies and more effectively welcome underserved communities. We look forward to continuing with this program and inviting our whole community to connect with our museum.

*Museums for All is a national, branded access program that encourages individuals of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. It is open to participation by any type of museum — including art, history, natural history/anthropology, and general museums, children’s museums, science centers, planetariums, nature centers, historic houses/sites, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and arboretums. Learn more on the Museums for All website.

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