Smithsonian magazine describes its signature “Museum Day” – Sept. 21 this year – as “an annual celebration of boundless curiosity” and marks the observance by giving away tickets to numerous museums and cultural venues throughout the country. Participants simply go to and follow the Museum Day link.

On the other hand, every day is museum day locally thanks to area libraries’ free Museum Pass programs. The check-out process is the same as the one for books, and library spokesmen say the passes are hugely popular, with some sites – Elmwood Park Zoo and Morris Arboretum, to name a couple – in such demand “they go out as fast as they get returned.”

“They’re extremely popular,” continues Adam Gilbert-Cole, adult services librarian at William Jeanes Memorial Library-Nicholas and Athena Karabots Center for Learning, in Lafayette Hill. “Places like Elmwood Park Zoo and Morris Arboretum or Chanticleer Gardens are so popular, we can hardly keep up with demand, especially during the summer when families with young kids are looking for something to do during school break.

“But it’s not just families with kids. They’re popular with people who are having out-of-town visitors they want to show around, retired people who are going out with friends…all ages. The program is provided through the generosity of our Friends of the William Jeanes Memorial Library, and it’s been a big hit with our patrons.”

Museums have come a long way since they initially opened their doors to the art-loving public in Renaissance Rome. These days, such collections defy easy categorization. Contemporary museums specialize in everything from art and antiquities to ramen noodles and toilets, and the diversity of passes offered at Montgomery County libraries (different from library to library) reflects that.

Among them: The Academy of Natural Sciences, Museum of the American Revolution, Bucks County Children’s Museum, National Museum of American Jewish History, Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, Woodmere Art Museum, Pearl L. Buck International, Simeone Automotive Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Independence Seaport Museum and Tyler Arboretum.

To name a handful…

The programs are typically paid for by a given library’s volunteer Friends group. But Wissahickon Valley Public Library Director Ann Frank says “because the program is so super popular, we pay for it out of our Collection budget.” In fact, she calls the passes “our highest turnover item” and figures current circulation is 23 per cent higher than last year’s.

“The passes are so popular that we’ve branched out to New Jersey…even New York, to the Guggenheim,” Frank says. “That’s our most recent (addition). People love the program. I mean, from this area you can be in New York in under two hours, in New Jersey in no time at all, in Baltimore in two hours.

“The other thing about the passes, they also include discounts in the (museum gift) shops, so when you figure how much you’re saving for an outing to one of these museums, it’s pretty incredible.

“It’s good for the museums, too. They get visitors they might not have gotten otherwise. And once they’re there, if they enjoy themselves, they might become members or start volunteering there. So, it’s a great promotion for them, good for us, good for our patrons…a win for everyone.”

Cheri Fiory, director of Upper Dublin Public Library, agrees.

“In 2018, our passes circulated over 1,000 times, and because each pass admits two to four people, that translates to many more ‘people’ than ‘visits,’” Fiory says. “Our Friends group spends approximately $5,000-$6,000 a year to keep the program going, and we find the passes are being used by all ages, so that’s a lot of people benefiting from the program.

“Sometimes, people just stop in and ask which passes we have available and go from there. Some museums – Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example – don’t participate in library pass programs, but the ones that do seem to benefit…at least from what we’re seeing at our end.

“Our first pass was one from Morris Arboretum. They contacted us, suggesting that purchasing a pass for our patrons to use would broaden our offerings at the same time it would encourage people to come to the arboretum. Now, we can’t keep our three (Morris Arboretum) passes on the shelf…they’re so popular. The same is true with our two Elmwood Park Zoo passes.”

Fiory gets no argument from Library Assistant Jack McAvoy.

“I’m usually at the desk, checking out,” McAvoy says. “Elmwood Park Zoo and Morris Arboretum are definitely our most popular passes from what I see, but it really does run the gamut of age groups and interests … people are clearly happy and thankful to have the program available.”

Polly Harrington, vice president of the Friends of Conshohocken Free Library, sums up the museum pass program at CFL in two words: “Totally awesome.”

“Given how expensive everything is, this is the sort of thing that levels the playing field for a lot of people, especially kids whose parents can’t afford to pay for a day at a museum,” Harrington says. “Our pass program has been a huge success. Elmwood Park Zoo, Morris Arboretum…yes, they’re extremely popular. But with the range of passes we offer – to places like The Magic Garden, the Mutter Museum, Eastern State Penitentiary, the African American Museum, the Battleship New Jersey – you’re really opening up the world to people.”

Specific information about borrowing free museum passes, including provisions for inter-library pass-borrowing, is available at local libraries via telephone or website. Additional details about Smithsonian magazine “Museum Day,” including access to free passes, is also posted at @MuseumDay, #MuseumDay and #SmithsonianMusic.


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