Museums for all should not be a secret

When I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I was three months pregnant and my first two sons were only 6 and 3 years old. Living in the city with children was phenomenal. Edgewater Beach was within walking distance of our house, the downtown library was our branch, and my boys regularly roared around the Great Lakes Science Centerespecially during the winter months.

We have also spent many summer afternoons at the Cleveland Botanical GardenHershey’s Kindergarten. Established in 1999, the Children’s Garden was the first of its kind in Ohio and an impressive addition to the more traditional Botanical Garden, which was free to the public, mostly outdoors, and closed in the winter.

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Magic is a cliched modifier, but when young children are allowed to interact with the elements – digging in the sand, filling containers using an old-fashioned pump in order to water plants or each other , sitting on a floating section of a bridge over a pond full of frogs – most are actively delighted.

On a blanket spread out on a grassy knoll, I unpacked sandwiches, fruit, and water. While my baby would sometimes nap, his brothers would climb in the treehouse or try to catch frogs alongside children of widely varying ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Then, in 2003, the Cleveland Botanical Garden began a major expansion. An underground garage has been added along with two massive indoor biomes, one featuring desert plants, the other rainforest flora.

As a result, the gardens are now open all year round, but they are no longer free. Admission is $16 for anyone 13 or older and $12 for children 3-12. An annual membership for a family of four is $100. And because he now has a cafe inside, picnics are no longer allowed in the kindergarten.

Despite all that has been won, the loss of access to botanic gardens for many people, especially children, has been overwhelming.

A great deal of research points to the benefits of educational institutions such as museums, libraries, and historical sites for children. Scores in reading, math, and science are higher among children who visit them when they are in kindergarten. These children also have, according to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Education, “greater appreciation for art, greater tolerance, and stronger critical thinking skills.”

But research also shows that children from more affluent families are much more likely to attend these institutions. And greater income inequality in a given state is directly correlated with greater disparity in attendance.

In many columns on holiday gifts, I have encouraged the gift of museum memberships to young families because I know firsthand how spending time in such institutions has permeated the lives of my now adult sons. They tell me this regularly and, yes, also deplore the changes to the Hershey Kindergarten.

But not every family has parents who can afford to buy a gift subscription. In a perfect world, we as a society would support these institutions and make them free for everyone. Everyone benefits when children have experiences that engage their imaginations and intellects.

That’s why I was pleased to discover a discount program when I recently took my two youngest children to the Boonshoft Discovery Museum in Dayton. At the entrance counter, an employee listed the various ticket discounts since we are not members.

The list was mostly predictable – military, AAA members, etc. She then asked if we were getting food assistance, telling me that with a valid SNAP card (food stamps), up to four members of a household can be admitted for only $2 per person.

Boonshoft is a member of Museums for allan initiative of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. According to their webpage,, “Museums for All invites low-income visitors to feel welcome in cultural institutions.”

Established in 2014-2015, Museums for All includes more than 900 institutions in all 50 states, Washington, DC and the Virgin Islands, all offering discounted admissions ranging from free to $3 for up to four household members.

However, the program is only effective if those who need it know it exists. I encourage school districts to educate families about Museums for All and to identify institutions in the area that are participating members.

More than 60 Ohio institutions are participating members. Here in Akron, that includes the Akron Zoo, Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, Hower House, Hale Farm and Village, Akron Art Museum and Akron Children’s Museum.

And just up the road, the Cleveland Botanical Garden is also a member of Museums for All and, therefore, again an inclusive institution where cost doesn’t stop any child from having fun at Hershey Children’s Garden.

Contact Holly Christensen at [email protected]

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