Providing Low Cost Access to Our Centers: Truly serving the underserved in our communities

Generosity doesn’t always require money. Science centers and museums are generous every day with ideas, facilities, knowledge, and gathering the community. Can this definition of generosity be what our institutions aspire to? This was the question posed by Catherine Horne, president and CEO of Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Alex Zwissler, former executive director and CEO of Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, at the start of the session “Providing Low Cost Access to Our Centers: Truly serving the underserved in our communities” on Saturday morning.

Horne went on to explain the Welcome program at Discovery Place, which offers $1 admission to anyone receiving public assistance for food through EBT or WIC cards. She believes that if we expect people to be generous with our institutions, we need to be generous with our communities. This program has opened the museum to an audience that didn’t know the museum was an option for their families. The children in these communities were visiting the museum through their schools, but Discovery Place wanted to engage entire families. The institution’s goal is to have 10% of museum attendees be from this new audience . . . which means they hope to give away $1-2 million in admissions. Horne stressed to her board that this program may cost the museum a lot of money, but it is the right thing to do for the community.

To begin the program, Horne and her staff contacted local social service agencies to gain support. There were a lot of questions from these organizations because nothing like this had ever been done in their community before, but the support for the program was massive. Implementing the Welcome program has required an internal cultural shift for Discovery Place. Staff and volunteers went through additional training in cultural competency to be prepared for a shift in museum visitors’ demographics. Materials were translated into Spanish and bilingual staff members were hired. There were bumps in the road during this process. Some staff wanted “these people” to wear a different color wristband, but Horne emphasized that “there are no ‘these people’ in our community. We are a community.” She stated during this session that Discovery Place has a lot of opportunities to do things that other museums are not able to try, so it is important to her that they set an example for other institutions, particularly with programs like Welcome.

Alex Zwissler heard Horne’s story and was inspired to create a similar program at Chabot. His initial thought was that it would be simple to replicate, but was met with myriad problems. Chabot did not receive the same level of cooperation from social service agencies that Discovery Place did, which kept the program from getting any real traction. After seeing a press release about a similar program at the Denver Children’s Museum, Zwissler contacted them to ask how they got started. The response? They just launched the program because they felt it was right and gained support after the fact. So Chabot decided to take the same approach.

California’s version of EBT or WIC cards is the Golden State Advantage program. Chabot decided to flip the stigma of this program around and create an affinity-type program for this new audience along the lines of, “If you’re lucky enough to have this card, you can visit the museum for $1.” So far, the program has not been a great success. Staff loves the program, but without support from the local social service agencies, it hasn’t been able to gain any momentum. Staff turnover and changing transportation to the museum also hurt the program.

Other museums have programs like this as well. The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) have started a pilot program, Museums for All, that aims to have similar programs at 125 museums by 2016, with 40 institutions set up so far. Attendees at the session were very engaged and enthusiastic, with representatives from MOSI in Tampa, Florida; Explora in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio; ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vermont; the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland; the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California; and the New York Hall of Science in Queens sharing their similar programs and experience with the room.

The bottom line stressed throughout this session was that programs like this should be done because they are the right thing to do, which is a refreshing approach to serving the community.