Dozens of state museums will be free for kids this summer
Hartford — Children can attend museums and cultural attractions for free this summer.
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrats, took part in a press conference here Wednesday at the Connecticut Science Center, where Gov. Ned Lamont announced the launch of the initiative beginning Thursday.
"Connecticut Summer at the Museum” will provide all children from Connecticut under the age of 18, as well as one accompanying adult, with free admission to a wide array of museums, historical societies, zoos, arboretums and other institutions. The program will last until Sept. 6.
In New London County, 16 museums, nature centers, state parks, historical attractions and more were awarded funding, including Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic Aquarium, Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Fort Trumbull State Park, Florence Griswold Museum and Niantic Children’s Museum. Some $15 million spread among the participating locations comes from Connecticut’s federal COVID-19 recovery funding through the American Rescue Plan Act. The state Department of Economic and Community Development’s Office of the Arts and Connecticut Humanities is administering the program.
Lamont has said the program will make up for students having to learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and missing out on in-person experiences.
“What we’re trying to do with this program that we put together, free of charge to all of our young people, is help them rediscover what makes [Connecticut] so special,” Lamont said, adding that it’s a chance for kids to “socialize, have some fun and maybe start to get back a little bit of learning so they’re ready to go in the fall. For a lot of us, we called it quarantine, but for a lot of kids it was isolation. It was a tough year.”
Blumenthal highlighted the possible economic development that could come of the program.
“It will be a great boost in social-emotional learning, but also jobs. Families who come to this museum will buy a meal across the street,” Blumenthal said. “They’ll shop down the block. This museum is part of an ecosystem, and it is about jobs.”
Mystic Seaport Director of Communications Dan McFadden, who was at the press conference, said the same — that people will go out to eat in the area or stay in a hotel for a night, for example.
McFadden and museum directors said this is a boon for Connecticut’s cultural centers.
“One of the best parts of this program is reducing the barrier cost, so we’ll see a lot of people visiting us who couldn’t afford to come potentially, and wouldn’t have come because the cost was prohibitive,” he said. “We’re looking forward to them coming to the museum, and we’re grateful to the governor for taking the cost barrier away so they can come visit us.”
McFadden said the $1.5 million for the museum will be going into its operating funds, including helping pay for insurance and salaries. He said the money has specifically allowed the museum to hire eight additional people as frontline staff, who will interact with museumgoers and tell the histories of the museum. He called the program a win-win for museums that have struggled financially due to the pandemic as well as an opportunity for children to have enriching cultural experiences.
Mystic Aquarium President and CEO Steve Coan praised the program for encouraging people to "get out and do things as opposed to being inside and behind a computer" and for its effort to ameliorate learning loss caused by the pandemic. He said the funding for the aquarium is meant to augment the free tickets, "so the aquarium and other institutions will be making a major commitment to this program."
"The need for that is extremely high throughout the state," he said. "The arts institutions have been hit particularly hard, as have museums, and the two (Connecticut) aquariums, and the zoo."
Coan said the Mystic Aquarium and other cultural institutions have been planning for the program in advance without much detail until Monday.
"The aquarium is prepared for 2018 and 2019 levels of attendance or higher, and we prepared very early on when we heard about this program, so we're ready," he said. "Obviously, you wish you had a little more notice, but we understand that the federal funding for this came very quickly and as with other programs under the American Recovery Act, the turnaround time is very quick."
Niantic Children’s Museum Executive Director Holly Cheeseman said she thinks the initiative is a “lovely program.” The museum will be receiving somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000. But, she noted, the timeline of the program “doesn’t leave us much time to get everything up and running.” She added that she wasn’t alone among museum directors in this assessment.
“We had to have our applications in by June 1st. If you look at the website, we were supposed to be notified by June 14th whether we were admitted to the program, and we were supposed to get contracts on June 23rd,” Cheeseman, a Republican state representative, said. “On Monday the email went out saying, ‘By the way, it’s going to happen, you’re going to be getting a notice for your award amount, you have a certain amount of time to accept.'”
Lamont said that preparedness won’t be a concern.
“Oh no, they’re ready,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘We will build it, they will come.’ They are coming. Parents see the need for their kids to get this socialization, this fun, this experience, and some learning.”