— If you can’t get free admission to a museum, a park, or some sort of walking tour, music performance or a national park on Saturday, Sept. 26, then you’re just not trying. Smithsonian Magazine’s fifth Annual Museum Day and National Public Lands Day both fall on the same day this year, and that means entry fees are waived and special events are planned at museums, cultural attractions, historic sites and parks across the country. So get your weekend chores out the way, jump in the car and take advantage of something free in your town or in the town you’re visiting that weekend.
Year-round, of course, there’s never a charge to visit the 15 Smithsonian Institution Museums in and around Washington, D.C. But on Sept. 26, as part of the fifth annual Museum Day program, Smithsonian magazine has convinced more than 1,200 other museums, zoos, and arts and cultural attractions across the country to also welcome visitors for free.
And it’s not just the stuffy, things-in-dusty-exhibit-cases, museums that are participating. In California, you’ll can use your Museum Day admission card to visit the classic cars displayed at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento (regular adult admission: $8), in New York City you can use your pass at the South Street Seaport Museum (regular adult admission: $10), and in Dallas, your pass will get you into the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (regular admission: $13.50), which explores the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy.
To see the full list of all the participating museums so you can plan your day, visit the Smithsonian’s Museum Day 2009 Web site and poke around. Be ready to be a bit overwhelmed: there are 90 participating museums in California alone, including the Cartoon Art Museum of California (regular admission: $6) and the San Francisco Exploratorium (regular adult admission: $14). Once you settle on the city you want to visit and the museum you want to see, you’ll need to get your Museum Day pass. You can clip one out of a September 2009 issue of Smithsonian Magazine or download one from the event Web site. Keep in mind that each pass is only good for entry into one museum. So you’ll need to buddy up (or register with different addresses) in order to gain entry to more than one site.
To make your decision-making progress a bit harder, in many cities free Museum Day entry comes with a bonus beyond free admission. In Naples, Fla., for example, the Collier County Museum is having a Museum Day party with a magic show, free sandwiches and a showing of the movie Distant Drums, which was filmed in the Florida Everglades more than 50 years ago and stars Gary Cooper.
A free day to peruse a park
Speaking of the Everglades, the Everglades National Park is one of the 391 national parks across the country where entrance fees will be waived on Sept. 26, in honor of National Public Lands Day. On that day, for the first time, the public will be able to tour the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island at night. On that day admission to all 63 Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites will be free as well, in part because National Public Lands Day is also Georgia's Free Day in the Parks. In addition to free park entry, visitors will get to ignore the $5 parking fee and, because Sept. 26 is also National Hunting and Fishing Day, anglers in Georgia will be welcome to fish without a fishing license.
Across the country, as part of National Public Lands Day, volunteers will be invited to stop by city, state and national parks to help improve, enhance and clean up public lands. Last year, more than 120,000 people pitched in and helped spruce up more than 1,300 sites. This year, with staff and budget cuts at many parks taking their toll, the list of parks and historic sites needing help is even longer and officials are hoping volunteer turnout is even stronger. The list of just some of the places that need volunteers this year includes the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco (habitat restorations, trail maintenance) and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta (weeding, painting).
For those who want to attend a big party in honor of National Public Lands Day, the place to be will be the Ellipse in Washington D.C. at the end the day. From 5 p.m. until about 8:30 p.m., the National Park Service will be celebrating the 14 local national parks with extended hours at the Washington Monument, “park-interactive” activities for kids and adults, free ice-cream, and a short preview of Ken Burns’ new documentary, "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea," introduced by the filmmaker himself.
Beyond the big day
If you can’t take advantage of any of the free events happening around the country on Sept. 26 in honor of Museum Day, National Public Lands Day or National Hunting and Fishing Day, (it’s also National Estuaries Day), don’t worry. There are other times during the year when you’ll be able to visit many museums and historic sites for free. Most museums and cultural attractions set aside a day each month when entry fees are waived. Poke around museum Web sites (free days are sometimes disguised as “Pay what you can” days) and sign up for the tourism department mailings in your town and in any town you think you’d like to visit. Read newspapers (remember those?) and flip through the weekend inserts for festivals in town: corporate sponsors often pick up museum entry fees as part of the package.
And keep an eye on your “junk mail.” I’m pretty sure I first discovered Bank of America’s Museums on Us program by reading a flyer that fell out of my bank statement. While my low balance checking account no longer earns interest, under that program my ATM card earns me (and anyone with that bank’s credit, ATM, or debit card) free admission at more than 80 museums around the country on the first full weekend of each month. Not a bad return on my $26 balance.