Connecticut’s free museum summer program an overwhelming success

Jackson Chen

The free admission program for kids and accompanying adults have greatly boosted attendance numbers at many of the participating museums.
Visitors at Mystic Seaport Museum.Credit Mystic Seaport Museum

A month into Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s free admission program for museums, kids and families are still pouring into all of the cultural institutions that the state has to offer.

On June 30, the governor launched Connecticut Summer at the Museum, a program that offers kids 18 years old and younger and one accompanying adult free admission to museums throughout the state from July 1 to September 6. The program spans more than 90 museums across the state, including the Beardsley Zoo, the Mystic Aquarium and the Mystic Seaport Museum. According to the governor’s office, the program was funded through a $15 million investment from federal COVID-19 recovery funding that Connecticut is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Halfway into the program, museums are still seeing an overwhelming response from the free admissions with no signs of slowing down. The attention generated from the program has even caused Mystic Aquarium to run out of free admission reservations, according to a report from The Day.

“[My] gut reaction is this program has been a tremendous success so far in terms of bringing people back to museums,” Liz Shapiro, director of arts, preservation and museums for Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said. “Everybody is reporting that their visitation is doing extremely well and they’re also reporting visitors who they hadn’t seen at these museums are coming.”

Shapiro explained that the program has two complementary goals, to help kids be more prepared to return to school in-person and to spur visits to museums whose admissions were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To facilitate the free admissions, Beardsley Zoo has continued its online reservation policy that was instituted in response to COVID-19. According to Gregg Dancho, the zoo’s director, the zoo is seeing nearly 2,000 visitors a day.

“We started the summer kids free program this July and it has been from day one very, very popular,” Dancho said. “We’ve basically sold out every day.”

Dancho added that the zoo tries to limit the amount of guests due to capacity limits and COVID-19 guidelines but has been flexible as there’s usually a certain percentage of reservations that are no-shows and can be filled at the last minute.

“What we’re trying to do is be as flexible as we possibly can,” Dancho said. “We’ve made changes all the time with the numbers for the reservations, we’ve upped and upped and upped it.”

Even for the smaller museums, there’s been an influx of visitors and reservations. According to Joe DeFeo, senior development coordinator at The Children’s Museum, when the museum opens bookings for the week, they are usually all reserved by the next day.

Unlike the neighboring Mystic Aquarium that is fully booked up, the Mystic Seaport Museum is not facing the same capacity limitations as other museums.

“We have not had any capacity challenges, nor do we have time tickets,” Dan McFadden, the museum’s director of communications, said. “We don’t have a limited number of tickets on any given day and we will admit everybody and anybody who comes and is qualified to receive a free admission.”

McFadden explained that most of the Mystic Seaport Museum is outdoors, removing the indoor capacity limitations that most museums adhere to. However, he noted that the museum has blacked out three days from free admission where it will hold The WoodenBoat Show from August 20 to 22.

“We just see it as a wonderful opportunity for us to market ourselves and show off our museum to people who in many cases would not come otherwise,” McFadden said of the program.

Looking past the increased attendance and the challenges that come along with it, staff members noted that there are many new faces coming to their museums.

“We’re seeing a lot of people that have not necessarily come to the zoo on a regular basis,” Dancho said. “Having it be free really opened it up to everybody to come visit, whatever socioeconomic class you’re in.”

Shapiro explained that welcoming Connecticut residents from differing backgrounds was one of the intended goals behind the free admission program.

“One of the ideas behind this program was, let’s even the playing field, let’s give the opportunity to all kids, regardless of where they live, regardless of socioeconomic status,” Shapiro said.

For Mystic Seaport Museum, the program has exceeded expectations for admissions and new guests and been more successful than originally anticipated, according to McFadden.

“People are happy to be out, happy to be doing things in the summer and they’re getting to go for free because the state’s paying for it,” McFadden said. “It’s definitely widened our audience and given people the opportunity, who probably wouldn’t or couldn’t come otherwise, to see our museum.”

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