En español | If your favorite museum is on the pricey side, take note: Museums across the country are opening their doors to visitors for free on Saturday, Sept. 18 — and tickets are available online now.
Sponsored by Smithsonian magazine, a membership publication of the Smithsonian Institution, Museum Day began in 2005 to celebrate the magazine's 35th birthday. Last year's day was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, so participants this year are particularly excited for the return of the mega-popular event (more than 100,000 tickets were downloaded in 2019), which gives visitors across the country the chance to experience world-class art and exhibitions free of charge.
"It gives us a way to provide people valuable access to these incredible gems that could be right in their backyard, but they have not had the opportunity to take advantage of,” says Amy Wilkins, chief revenue officer for Smithsonian Media.
Among the options this year: Los Angeles’ California African American Museum, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and the Baltimore Museum of Art. There are also quirkier picks, such as the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, and the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco.
Zoos, gardens and other cultural centers, like the Alabama Aquarium and UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, are also in the mix — and there are serious savings to be had at destinations like the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, where ticket prices typically start around $27, and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, where admission costs $31 for adults 65 and up.
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"We love participating because it allows us to be as accessible as possible to people who might not be able to come otherwise,” says Desiree Siegel, marketing director for the Intrepid museum. “Especially this year, [given] all the things that have happened over the last year and a half, we're really excited to be able to participate and welcome visitors to the museum for a free day.”
To find a museum and reserve your spot, visit the Smithsonian magazine's Museum Day website and select “Get a Ticket” at the top of the page. From there, you can search and filter participating institutions by location and type. Once you make your selection, enter your name and email address to download a free pass that you and a guest can use on the 18th (a copy will also be emailed to you). Some museums will allow you to show your ticket on your smartphone, others want it printed; the ticket will note whether you'll need a hard copy.
Note that you can't go free-museum hopping on Museum Day; the site lets you download only one ticket for each email address.
Visitors this year should also be prepared to observe pandemic protocols during their visit. At the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, for example, all visitors 12 and older must show proof of vaccination and keep masks on indoors. For information about coronavirus-related precautions at your destination, call or visit the museum website (contact information is available on the Museum Day website) to learn more. Also check state and local COVID-19 restrictions.
Participating museums have the right to limit entry if they reach capacity; some are also limiting the number of free tickets available (in that case its listing on the Museum Day website will indicate “no tickets available") — so wherever you're headed, it's a good idea to reserve your spot soon and plan on arriving early on Sept. 18.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.