Detroit Historical Museum to reinstate admission fee after losing $297K

Detroit — After charging no admission fee for the last seven years, the Detroit Historical Museum is reinstating an entrance charge starting Nov. 1, part of a strategy to stave off an increasing budget deficit.

Museum executive director and CEO Elana Rugh said after the museum lost $297,000 in 2018, officials made the decision to reinstate an admission policy. The museum's annual operating budget is currently about $4.5 million.

Museumgoers pass an old firehouse created in "The Streets of Old Detroit" hall at the Detroit Historical Museum.

"Fortunately, we have reserves in place that have been helping us the past few years," Rugh said. "But we need to look at a different funding model, and access all income available to us."

Rugh said she expects admission fees to account for about 5% of future budgets. The museum currently relies heavily on private contributions, as well as foundation and corporate support.

Under the new policy, adults will pay $10 to enter while seniors, students, active-duty military and first responders will pay $8. Children ages 6 to 17 pay $6.

The museum was founded by the Detroit Historical Society. Admission to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, also founded by the DHS, will continue to be free. 

A familiar Little Caesars Pizza character towers over the display in the Allesee Gallery of Culture at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck residents, however, will be able to register for free memberships and enter the city-owned historical museum at no cost. 

John Decker, a museum trustee who sits on the executive committee, said it remains important to the Detroit Historical Society and the board of trustees to continue to offer free admission to Detroit residents.

"But revenue from the new admissions policy will allow us to continue to provide world-class, impactful exhibitions such as the award-winning 'Detroit 67' project, which won prizes both nationally and on the world stage," Decker said.

The museum is located in the city's cultural center historic district in Midtown Detroit and chronicles the history of the Detroit area from cobblestone streets, 19th-century stores, the auto assembly line and fur trading from the 18th century.

The Detroit Historical Museum's Glancy Trains display features an impressive model train layout.

The museum has 1,429 active members, though that number is expected to increase with the free-membership offer. 

The museum had an entrance fee from 1951 to 2012, when the success of its "Past>Forward" capital campaign, and the renovations it funded, led to a decision to grant free admission for one year.

That wasn't necessarily supposed to be permanent, Rugh said, but ended up lasting seven years — perhaps because of the goose it gave attendance. Last year, the museum welcomed 136,833 visitors, over twice the 64,440 in 2011. 

About 10% of the museum's annual revenue comes from the city of Detroit. Unlike the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo, the historical museum gets no county funding.

Both the zoo and DIA won millages from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb voters that provide significant ongoing tax support. As a consequence, the zoo offers reduced admission to tri-county residents, while at the DIA, they enter free. 

The only area museum with an admissions policy resembling the historical museum's current policy is the Toledo Museum of Art, where there's no entrance fee, but non-members pay $8 for parking. At the historical museum, parking costs $9.

According to the most recent federal financial records filed by the Detroit Historical Society, it had a budget deficit of $1.07 million in 2017 and $1.05 million in 2016. It spent $2.4 million alone in 2017 in salaries, compensation and other employee benefits and $2.1 million the year before.

With the new entrance fee, Rugh sees a new era of financial stability, which will allow for possible museum expansion, as well as new programming and exhibits.  

"We’re going to ramp up everything to tell Detroit stories and preserve the treasures we’re entrusted with," she said, "all of which will point us toward our 100th anniversary in 2021."

Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson said he supports the Detroit Historical Museum's pricing structure and the Detroit membership level that provides free entry for residents of Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.

"This is a necessary move to continue to provide world-class programs at the DHM and ensure everyone has continued access," Benson said.

Benson, who represents District Three, said he is committed to identifying a dedicated revenue stream for the city's cultural jewels like the museum and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

But Ken Coleman, a Detroit historian and journalist, said it is unfortunate that the museum must charge for admission and worries the fee could be a barrier for low-income people from outside the city.

"I believe that history is an important aspect of all of our lives, and it should be part of our education system and our society," Coleman said. "This is going to be a challenge for everyday working people to understand the great and complex history of our metropolitan region."

Coleman said it's time for the region to pay as much attention to the Detroit Historical Museum as it does to the DIA.

"The institution is just as important, and it deserves the same level of support," Coleman said. "It’s a tragedy the (museum) has to be in the situation it is."

Michael S. Rafferty, president and CEO of New Detroit, a racial justice organization, said Detroit's history is so important for the region and needs to be seen by as many people as possible. He hopes the admission does not deter people from learning about it.

"They did a really great job with 'Detroit 67' project," Rafferty said. "That type of programming goes a long way toward educating the region and contributing toward racial equity."

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