Sunday, May 25, 2014

The admission fee at the 9/11 Memorial Museum

I haven't yet been to this Museum and am not sure I will ever want to. But we needed to build this museum. Now the museum is open, but it charges an admission fee of $24. 

I didn't like this news when I first heard it (thoughtfully covered, by the way, by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times) and I'm not thrilled by it now. But it is less troubling, and harder to fix, than I'd first thought.

It's been said that the reason for the high charge is that there is no federal subsidy for the museum's operating costs (and not enough subsidy from anyone else either). There's plenty wrong in Washington these days, of course, but evidently the federal government did provide $250 million, hardly a small amount, towards the memorial's construction costs. The museum's estimated operating costs are reported in Cohen's article as $63 million a year; should the taxpayers be on the hook for this sum too? (A major reason the costs are this high is security, at a site that, as its president has pointed out, has twice been attacked by terrorists -- though whether the security measures are actually necessary can certainly be debated.) 

How does one measure the value of a memorial? Obviously, in one sense its value is limitless and unmeasurable. But few things are really completely beyond valuation -- we determine, regularly, how much to spend on them, and how much we spend is a measure, however, imprecise, of value. So we might ask how the 9/11 memorial's value compares to other memorials, of which there are quite a few. Here's one such comparison, from a 2012 news report:
A report Sunday by The Associated Press noted that $12 million a year would be spent on security, more than the entire operating budgets of Gettysburg National Military Park and the monument that includes the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Here's another: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum charges no admission fee, and receives $52.4 million in federal funding to help cover its operating costs. Can we say that these costs rightly measure the value of these memorials? Or are they at least as much the result of the vagaries of history and politics?

We might ask, instead, what the impact of the ticket price will be on the place this memorial will come to have in people's hearts. The answer seems to me to be that $24 is enough to mean that the memorial will not be casually visited by anyone who isn't well off. $24 isn't an impossible sum, but it is three hours of work at the current $8 minimum wage in New York - more than that, actually, since that minimum wage employee would have money taken from his or her paycheck for social security and other taxes. To decide to spend three hours or more's worth of income on coming to the museum, a minimum wage worker will have to really want to make this trip. Someone with less than a minimum wage income may be unable to pay this amount no matter how much she might want to. 

But the museum is not altogether beyond anyone's reach. The memorial's website notes that there are three hours of free admission on Tuesday evenings; discounts for military, firefighters and police; and free admission for 9/11 family members. Maybe it isn't really likely that many people would casually visit the museum anyway, even if its admission charges were much less. 

So perhaps the memorial will serve its purpose. For those who want to visit, it is there and not entirely out of anyone's reach. For those who remember 9/11 but do not want or need to visit a memorial, its simple existence may have meaning. But it is hard not to worry that over time the Memorial will become a part of the city's glittering cultural sphere, available to all under some restrictions but still primarily serving only a limited group of people. That will be too bad. Perhaps it reflects that this memorial is simply too elaborate, as some have suggested. Or perhaps it reflects that we as a people cannot afford today the sort of memorial we would like, and must therefore rely on the charity of some and the admission charges (and gift-shop payments) of others to sustain us. 

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