Here’s Why The Met’s Admission Policy Still Needs Further Amendment

Pay-as-you-wish at the admissions desk, but visitors who buy online or at self-serve kiosks are still paying a premium

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 30: Hundreds of people walk through the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) on July 30, 2015 in New York City. The Met recently announced that it drew 6.3 million visitors in the last year, the most since the New York museum began taking crowd statistics more than 40 years ago. Tourism in New York has continued to grow, hitting record numbers in the last few years as people flock to Manhattan and Brooklyn for the cultural institutions, nightlife and shopping.

The Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum has announced that it plans to settle a three-year-long class action lawsuit over its continue used of allegedly vague language for admission pricing. Beginning in March, the museum will adjust the signage at its admission desks, self-service ticket kiosks and website pages to read “suggested admission” instead of the arguably confusing current phrasing, “recommended admission.”

However, adjusted signage still won’t change the fact that visitors will continue to be charged the full suggested admission price of $25 through every payment platform except the main ticket desks.

Is The Met really clarifying its “pay what you wish” policy for museum goers?

In 2013, two lawsuits were filed against the museum over wording used in the museum’s admissions signage. That year, a judge ruled in favor of the museum on the more severe section of the suits, which invoked an 19th-century law that barred the museum from charging any fee. According to a report by The New York Times, the museum, with permission from the city, began charging suggested admission in 1971.

The museum’s president Daniel Weiss told The Times the suggested admission was vital to the museum. “Our goal is for people to understand that what we do and what we contribute is enormously expensive,” he said. “All of the funds from admissions get put into our programs and the collection and the institution. Excellence costs money.”

The museum is on the eve of a major rebranding campaign, and will launch a new logo and website featuring redesigned fonts and color schemes concurrently with the opening of its highly anticipated Met Breuer location on March 1.

The ticket policy is the same for each of The Met’s three locations (Fifth Avenue, Met Breuer and The Cloisters). Visitors can purchase at any one location (or online), and don’t need to purchase additional tickets if they wish to visit any of the other locations on the same day.

A spokesperson for the museum said in an email to the Observer, “In the cases of online and at the kiosks, it’s for expedited entry, for visitors who prefer not to wait on line (and the lines can sometimes be long).”

A screenshot of the page to buy tickets via the museum's website.

A screenshot of the page to buy tickets via the museum’s website. (Photo: metmuseum.org)

I visited the Met a few weeks back on Sunday, and can verify that the lines can, indeed, be a slog. While standing in the snaking queue on the museum’s steps, I overheard a group of tourists arguing over their digitally purchased tickets while fumbling with a stack of folded print outs.

“No, we don’t have to buy tickets,” one shouted at the other, while their friend skipped ahead in an attempt to scope out the line inside for the admission desk. “We already bought tickets online,” she said, waving the papers.

“But why did you buy them online if we could just buy them here?” the friend shouted back.

A good question. But a more important query might be, “Why buy tickets online for $25, when you can pay whatever you want at the museum.”

The main reason for online ticketing is to skip the wait time once you get to the museum. This option suits those coming from out of town well, but also appeals to those with a tight schedule. However, if you buy online, not only will you have to pay $25-per-person, you’re also hit with a service charge of $1.

Once inside, and about 15-minutes into waiting in line to buy my ticket (press can get into most museums for free, but I’ve always made a point at the Met to make a donation considering the “pay-what-you-wish” policy), I noticed a set of three, brand new ticket kiosks standing unused by the coat check. But it wasn’t the glimmer of the new electronics that caught my eye, it was the fine print off to the side, which stated: “By purchasing tickets at a kiosk, you are agreeing to pay the full suggested admission.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand convenience. Standing in three separate lines—outside, inside, and at the coat check—not only cuts into art viewing time, but for tourists coming from out of town it can derail other plans. But the museum’s strategy to up the admission price for online and kiosk administered tickets undermines its mission to make art broadly accessible through a donation-based policy. On the ticketing page of the museum’s website it states: “If you buy tickets at a museum ticket counter, the amount you pay is up to you. Please be as generous as you can,” and “Avoid waiting in admission lines! By buying tickets online you agree to pay our suggested prices.”

The museum cleverly employed a similar trick with membership packages during the run of its extremely popular Alexander McQueen exhibition in 2011. Lines to see the show topped four-hours, but members could skip the line and the museum worked overtime to sell on-the-spot memberships. During the last week of the exhibition, the museum pulled membership privileges due to overwhelming crowd numbers.

The Met is not the only museum with a pay-as-you-wish policy in the city. The American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum are among a dozen institutions with similar policies, and museums such as the American Folk Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian are free. (The AMNH also charges the full suggested admission price for online tickets, and if visitors choose to see one its special exhibitions they’ll have to pay the full admission price plus an extra $5.)

Amended language will certainly be a welcome reprieve, but it still doesn’t help justify the significant price discrepancies between ticketing platforms. For better transparency, some suggestions:

— Do not say you have a pay-as-you-wish policy unless you actually have a pay-as-you-wish policy, no matter where visitors buy their tickets.

— Be even more obvious with by saying “donation” or “contribution” instead of “suggested admission,” or better yet just simply say “pay-as-you-wish.”

— Work to create digital ticketing that allows visitors to pay-as-they-wish online and at self-service kiosks. This encourages more people to use those platforms, and keeps entry lines inside the museum flowing faster.