Families who wanted to visit museums around the city for free or at steep discounts could rely on passes from Chicago Public Library branches. For 20 years, those coveted passes provided entrance to institutions such as Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. But the library quietly ended the program last month in favor of a digital program that officials say will give more access to more museums.
The new digital museum program allows patrons to make reservations at up to 64 cultural institutions in the city and suburbs — more than triple the destinations the library offered through its old physical kids museum passport program.
But the change is disappointing to Andy Meyer, who regularly searched for passes.
“For Mother’s Day the last two years, I’ve planned a day for my wife and each of our kids,” Meyer said. “And for the last two years, my 4-year-old son has gone to the Chicago Children’s Museum. So I always get the museum pass from the library, because that would give us free admission.”
When he went to the Edgebrook branch one day to return the pass, he was shocked to learn about the change.
“The person behind the desk handed me a flier saying the beloved museum pass is changing. It’s going online digital, which felt like a good thing,” Meyer said. “But then looking at the brochure and looking at their website, I realized a lot of the changes were not all good.”
The former kids museum passport program allowed families to save more money, but it wasn’t perfect, said Patrick Molloy, CPL director of government and public affairs.
“We wanted to make sure that this opportunity was there for everyone so that we felt that it was important for adults to have that additional access, not just children or adults with children,” Molloy said.
The new program expanded offerings from 19 to 64 cultural institutions. Most offers can be used by people without kids and have the potential to reach more and a greater diversity of people since it’s now online.
Molloy said when CPL got rid of fines in 2019, that did not include the kids museum passport passes. They were popular enough that parents would drive around to multiple locations seeking passes; but that made it hard for the library to track who was using them.
“It’s difficult to say specifically what area it was most popular because quite often people were traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood to find the passes that were available. That really benefited the people who had greater access,” Molloy said.
Now, CPL is part of Explore More Illinois, a program that helps libraries provide free and discounted tickets to a variety of cultural venues. Each participant had to provide an offering that was unique to the new pass — no one could use it to solely promote already existing opportunities. Twenty of the 64 offerings are in the city proper. Each partner institution selected its own offerings and stipulations. New additions include the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum in Oak Park. They also include the Chicago Maritime Museum and Newberry Library.
But the digital program offerings limit which days per week people can visit and some popular destinations pulled out, such as the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium. Shedd officials said it will instead promote its current free and discounted offerings, which the aquarium felt more effectively reached low-income populations.
A lot of people do not know about CPL’s new digital pass program yet. Molloy said they’re trying to spread the word through social media and email newsletters.
The Museum of Contemporary Art was part of the old program and joined the new one.
Associate director of sales and ticketing Casey VanWormer said the museum will be looking at data.
“One of the primary ways we hold ourselves accountable to serving the larger population of Chicago is a ZIP code analysis,” VanWormer said.
She said last year, most physical pass visitors came from North Side neighborhoods like Uptown and Lincoln Park. So far this year, digital pass visitors are coming from a wider array of neighborhoods, including Avondale and Jeffrey Manor on the South Side.
And even though these are early numbers, they’re the kind of results CPL hopes create a lasting trend.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow @adorakn.