So what does it cost to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Just when I get to thinking there’s no use for a Public Linguist in the Big Apple, something like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to, ever so subtly, change the language on its Admission sign comes along and proves me wrong again.

The Admission sign as it reads now.       Arrow pointing down


Staring March 1st – the language on the Metropolitan Museum’s Admission signs, kiosks and website will strive for  “clarity” – to clear up confusion about how much it costs to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

If you’ve visited the Metropolitan Museum and cast a skeptical eye on the Admission sign or clicked onto the Admission explanation on its website; or if you’ve ever warned your out of town visitors to “give whatever you like – a dollar is fine.” you’ll probably have an opinion on this.

I’m not going to the argument about what role public financial support of the Met should play.  Linguists are not about that.  As Chomsky says – It’s all about the DEEP STRUCTURE.

For quite some time New Yorkers and tourists have been confused and angered by the Met’s Admission signs. In fact, in 2012 two members of the Museum actually sued the museum, arguing that the signs mislead the public into thinking that its admission fees are mandatory. Pay to play.

Some estimate that 85% of visitors to the Museum misunderstand the Admission Fee policy.

Call in the linguist!
wired copy

Spoiler Alerts!

#1 Vocabulary 

“suggested” + “recommended” are almost synonymous and from a comprehension perspective they are NOT easy to read words.

In fact there is no difference in the readability or understandability of the words “recommended” and “suggested”.

Not to sound to linguisticky – but according to the Flesch-Kinkaid, a popular readability scale, a sentence like  “This is a recommended fee/price” is roughly a 10-12 grade reading level vocabulary work. Ditto for “suggested”.

       Over half the population reads at 8th grade level or lower.

       Many potential visitors are immigrants or tourists who may not be fluent in English.

#2 Semantics

To a highly tuned American English-speaking ear “recommend” implies that the person doing the recommending has some knowledge, authority to proscribe. There is a rule to follow.

Whereas “suggest” is, well a bit more friendly. Sort of like, “Hea, I have a good idea ….”

 #3 Grammar

And to complicate matters for the reader both words (recommended/suggested) are passive verbs. Verbs in their passive are dry hard to comprehend. They’re harder to understand than their active partners –“We recommend….or “We suggest…”

Also with passives there is no specific person doing the acting. Its objective voice carries more authority.

What to do? What to do?

Co-opt the current political discourse!  Here are 3 adjustments to the signage. 

The Bernie Sanders



The Donald Trump





The Hilary Clinton 






4 replies
  1. Jackie V
    Jackie V says:

    I’m glad to see that Clarissa made the connection to the Cialdini readings because I did the same as I read this blog post. I further connected it with this week’s readings related to authority and how the influence of an authority figure or presence (in this case, a sign directly from the museum’s staff) causes use to have this “click-whirr” automatic reaction to pay the fee. In his discussion about the Milgram experiments, he says that we have an innate “obedience to authority” tendency, where we follow what we are told because we trust the authority figure to tell us what to do (Cialdini, pg 183). In this case, the authority is the sign from the museum, as well as the staff members eyeing you as you walk in and decide how much to donate for entrance. Another thing I noticed is that the word “recommended” is significantly smaller than the rest of the text. To a quick observer, it looks as if those prices are mandatory, especially if they do not notice the word recommended. And even if they do see “recommended,” the word has such an authoritative feeling that we feel compelled to donate that much. Those who know about the museum know that a donation of any kind is sufficient for entry, but tourists will likely fall trap to the sign and pay the fully recommended price.

    Cialdini, R. Influence the psychology of persuasion. First Collens Business Essentials. 2007

  2. Clarissa Padilla
    Clarissa Padilla says:

    This reminds issue reminds me a lot of the Cialdini readings and the power of human perception. Cialdini says we all have innate perceptions which “affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another” (Cialdini,p.12). To me, if we see the word ADMISSION, followed by the word “RECOMMENDED” and then a list of fee’s, is a perfect recipe for the click and whirr in us as Cialdini refers to which argues is a trigger feature in us all. This trigger in this case for some might mean to pay without giving any thought to the fact that this is supposed to be a suggested fee. This sort of “mindless responding” ( Cialdini, pg.7) is exactly what the Met is hoping for so they can continue the flow of revenue. Just my opinion. I certainly have feel not read signs thoroughly before and click-whirr and paid. Not fair especially for tourists, vulnerable populations and those with low literacy levels.


    Cialdini, R. Influence the psychology of persuasion. First Collens Business Essentials. 2007

  3. Liam
    Liam says:

    Whether or not the met was intentionally trying to mislead visitors into paying an entrance fee when none is actually required, it certainly confused visitors! Using myself as an example, it also made me feel guilty if I didn’t. When I interpret the word “recommended” it makes me feel as if this is what I should do and expected to do (like it is recommended to eat fruit and vegetables every day). Also, it makes you feel as if this is what everyone else is doing so you should follow. I also feel the same about the word “suggested”, again it makes me feel like that is what I am asked to do. So I am not so sure if changing the wording to “suggested” from “recommended” will make much of a difference. However, I definitely appreciate that the new sign will say “The amount you pay is up to you”. I find this to be a much clearer simple message, and one that might make me feel less guilty when not paying the suggested amount because maybe I can’t afford to.

  4. Jordan Cuby
    Jordan Cuby says:

    I have visited this museum before with a friend and even I was confused about the sign. As so someone who feels that I have a good level of comprehension for most things, I feel that this sign does EXACTLY what it is meant to do! No, a donation is not mandatory, it is “suggested”, but the looks that you receive if you decide not to donate! Its a communication issue that is deeply rooted in the capitalistic mindset that is New York City. This signage plays on ones emotion, “guilting” people into giving money to a public institution that is ideally free. But on the flip side, I do not feel that the issue of understanding what the sign says is the paramount. People who are in marketing and advertisment see that placing the letters and size of the letters in strategically will peak the attention of most people who are focused on other things. You almost have to be skeptic, reading “the fine print” of each sign you see not to miss this, but most people are not like that, specifically at a venue that is meant for enjoyment. And because of this known fact, this museum has made an absolute KILLING!!!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply