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“One of the most-discussed elements of service to community within the museum field is that of access. In decades past it was wholly sufficient to have collections and exhibitions that were on display — while audiences were welcome, there was notably little thought given to the quality of visitor experience.  Since the 1980s and increasingly in the past decade, the focus on visitor needs and the accessibility of programs and exhibits has transformed the museum world.

In our University Museum context we’re in the mainstream of those considerations, as we strive to be a visitors-first and audiences-friendly institution. A major milestone was our determination in 2013 that we would go to an entirely Free Admission policy — to eliminate any barrier to Museum access on the basis of income. Our adoption of operating hours of Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. provides opportunity for working adults, families, and the campus community to visit at the end of a workday, and an entire weekend day. Multiple evening programs and receptions, plus Saturday Family Activity Days and workshops, augment the spectrum of Museum ‘open-ness’ and accessibility.

Our facility is equipped with ADA-compliant handicapped access ramps, restrooms, and exhibition galleries, and careful attention is paid to visibility and placement height of all wall text and exhibition graphics. Visitors with other disability needs can contact us in advance, to arrange our highest possible degree of accommodated service.

Quality of visitor experience became a mantra for me under the mentorship of the first Museum director I served (as a Curator) at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Those formative years left me with an absolute conviction that visitors and audiences deserve nothing less than our most comprehensive anticipation of their needs. Museum visits start well before actual arrival, as the website, print collateral, and e-newsletters not only convey information but they set a tone, and convey a degree of welcome and ease of access that creates the very first impression.

Not surprisingly in the University of Mississippi campus context, parking is a major issue that often inhibits local residents from driving toward campus to partake of University offerings. Our Museum is exceptionally fortunate to offer an entirely free parking lot of well over 35 spaces, and I have joked that I’m the only Dean or Director within the entire University who can legitimately proclaim “Free and Plentiful Parking” to the public.

If one may wish to jump into the Museum for 15 minutes of solitude and reflection in front of our Georgia O’Keefe painting, we want our community to recall how simple and welcoming that kind of spontaneous visit can be.

I’d like to close these reflections with a word about Membership. As is the case nationally for museums that have adopted Free Admission, memberships assume a significantly greater degree of fiscal importance. Our Museum absolutely will thrive and grow in direct proportion to our strength in attracting new members, and sustaining renewing members at augmented levels. Please consider reviewing our Membership Benefits at the Join tab of the Museum website.

We offer a Membership benefit of very significant value : the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) program. With this sticker on our Membership card, one can visit over 900 national participating museums entirely free of charge. This in itself is a major access benefit of a different nature: our facilitating our members to freely visit museums across the country.

Please feel free to share any thoughts with me, at any time. My Director’s office is open to all, as is my phone extension 662.915.7202. I can also be reached at rsaarnio@olemiss.edu and I sincerely welcome your contact. I’m inspired by our great Museum to extend our open access values to your personal accessibility to the Director — I would be most pleased to hear from you.”

Robert Saarnio's signature
Robert Saarnio 
Museum Director