No Admission Fee: The Beauty of Public Lands and Free Museums

No Admission Fee: The Beauty of Public Lands and Free Museums

By Megan Nelson

During my time at the Stanley Museum, I have noticed visitors always ask the same questions when they first walk through the door. The questions range from mundane to inquisitive, but perhaps the most common question asked is “do we have to pay to get in?” I always answer with a simple “there is no admission fee”. Of course, I follow it up with a quick addition of “but donations are always appreciated.” This policy of free admission is not just a courtesy to our visitors, rather it is a reflection of the overall philosophy of the surrounding land. Over 60% of Idaho land is public[1] which makes it the 4th ranked state with the most publicly owned lands.[2] While it is always nice to see the state of Idaho top any list, it begs the question of why is public land so important? I believe the answer is the same for the question of why are free museums important. Public lands and free museums are for the benefit of the people. Public lands and free museums can enrich lives by spreading knowledge and bringing joy. To understand the importance of them, it is necessary to know the history of museums and public lands in the United States.

The Smithsonian is one of the most famous historical institutions in the world and it has an interesting origin story. The Smithsonian got its start because a wealthy British scientist donated his estate to the United States in 1829. The British scientist was named James Smithson and his will stated the money was to be used to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”[3] Smithson had never visited America, nor did he have any reason to give his money to the country. The only possible reason for his generosity was that he was purely motivated by his passion for the proliferation of knowledge. His gift to our country dramatically changed the United States’ relationship with the arts and humanities. It was not just a gift to the United States, but it was a gift for all citizens. To this day, the Smithsonian museums in D.C. are free of admission fees.

The United States’s history of land use is fairly complex. The first century of the nation’s history was more concerned with land acquisition than land management. Then, the advent of the mid 19th century unleashed massive exploitation on land and nature—particularly in the American West.[4] However, with the excesses and abuses of the Gilded Age, people began to move towards a more reformist mindset; this began the Progressive Age. In the Progressive Age, people began to champion many causes including land conservation. Conservationists sought to find ways to protect the lands from further harm so they began to lobby for the idea of public land in perpetuity.[5] These public lands would be owned and maintained by the federal government to ensure they would remain beautiful, wild, and safe from exploitation. Furthermore, the lands would be for public appreciation and admiration. In 1872, Yellowstone was established as the nation’s first national park due to its incredible scenery.[6] Several more national parks and national forests followed Yellowstone, and then President Roosevelt took office. Throughout his presidency Theodore Roosevelt was an ally to the conservationists and created two new types of public land designations which were wildlife refuges and monuments.[7] Roosevelt was also responsible for a number of laws and committees for the purposes of conserving land for public access. The actions of conservationists in the Progressive Era laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement today.

On the surface, it seems as though museums and public lands have nothing in common. When one goes to a national park or forest, the activities usually consist of hiking or other outdoor things. At a museum, one stays inside a climate controlled building and looks at old objects. However, the core philosophy of both are the same: to better the people who visit those places. Out in the wilderness, people can reconnect to themselves. In a museum, one can look into the past and learn from others’ lives to find meaning in their own. Everyone should have equal ease of access to this potential enlightenment. Therefore, that is why I love to tell museum visitors that admission is free.

[1] “Public Lands and Wilderness,” Idaho Conservation League. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[2] “US States With the Most Publicly Owned Land,” World Atlas. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[3] “Our History,” Smithsonian Institute. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[4] “Conservation in the Progressive Era,” Library of Congress. Accessed August 2, 2019.

[5] Adam M. Sowards, “Public Lands and Their Administration,” Oxford Research Encylopedias. Accessed August 2, 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.