To Pay or Not to Pay: The Linguistic Hurdle to Entering the Met

Every time I asked a visitor to name their own price, I was throwing the script of a typical commercial transaction out the window

If I sold you a ticket in the last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I was running an experiment on you. Thank you for your participation.

Now, this experiment wasn’t very tightly controlled, and it definitely wasn’t sanctioned by the higher-ups, but when you’re doing the same thing 500 times a day you have to find a way to keep it interesting. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ticketing policy of the Met, it is somewhat well known in the field because you can pay anything you want for a ticket, as long as it’s above $0. For those of you familiar with this policy, it’s probably a source of anxiety.

For staff on the “frontline”, it’s a linguistic hurdle that we must cross with each and every transaction. It was impressed on me upon starting at the museum that I must make sure (probably for legal reasons) that each and every visitor understands this “pay-what-you-wish” policy which, believe-you-me, is not as simple as you might think. I began my experiment to try to find the magic words that people would understand, but confusion over the price of a ticket ensued pretty much instantaneously.

Me: How much would you like to pay?

Visitor: What?

Me: You can pay whatever you like.

Visitor: But it says $25 dollars on the sign…

Me: The price is recommended; you can pay whatever you like.

Visitor: What do you mean by “recommended”?

Me: I mean you can pay whatever you like, how much would you like to pay?

Working at the Met became an exercise in enforcing one institution’s narrow semantic worldview. For example, the word “donation” is verboten (it’s a “contribution”). Beyond that, I sold three different types of tickets—adult, student, and senior—all for the same price (whatever you wish) for the same thing. By enforcing these categories through signage, offers of “free” or “discounted” tickets, and different recommended pricing based on the category, the museum purposefully sends a strong message that these prices are the norm. Every time I asked a visitor to name their own price I was essentially showing them a little door, asking a “What if…?” and throwing the script of a typical commercial transaction out the window. Transgressing a norm, no matter how constructed or low stakes the situation is, can be a psychologically difficult thing to do.

Most of the time people froze. Then there was the young woman who, convinced it was a trick question, asked if she was secretly being filmed for Candid Camera, children who would shout “Pay a penny! Do it!” to the embarrassment of their parents, students who would sheepishly hand me a dollar and say “two please,” and Japanese visitors who, thankful I could help them in their own language, gave me booklets of their own art. Then there were those who challenged our definition of the terms and attempted to “pay nothing,” which I happily pointed out was a logical fallacy. These types of interactions to me were a sign that, in a new environment and then stripped of their usual communicative framework, visitors were unable to interpret my utterances as making sense, because by all rules of normal English they didn’t.

This confusion happened in translation too. Museums are sites of translation in more than one sense. The Met, as it accumulates art and artifacts from across cultures and time periods, tasks curators with creating the interpretive space for visitors. The objects present in the museum have been translated by curators to form a coherent body of works, an exhibition, as they lose their original context and are assimilated into the collection. This is the case just as much with traditional objects of art as with functional objects like pots or clothing that have been preserved in the art museum setting. Likewise, translation occurs at the point of contact between staff and visitors, as staff communicate their knowledge of the museum’s policies and its collection in multiple languages from resources usually available only in English, and as staff additionally devise ad-hoc ways of communicating to visitors with whom they do not share a common language. As with any act of translation, consideration of linguistic and cultural differences is paramount, even while interpretation takes place under less then ideal conditions. The museum as a cultural institution as it stands now exerts a powerful normative force on the objects it displays and in the experiences of its guests. As a staff member on the museum’s frontline I stood at the locus of that translation, trying to make the collections of the museum accessible to a broad audience.

After talking with friends who are native Japanese and Korean speakers, what I experienced was confirmed, that the concept of pay-what-you-wish just doesn’t translate easily. All languages use stock phrases to grease the wheels of social interaction, but while Americans often feel like a personalized touch on a stock phrase adds more sincerity, Japanese speech is much more fixed in its use of stock phrases, especially in business or transactional environments. Speakers depend on these phrases in part because the type of Japanese spoken changes considerably in different contexts. For example, to ask a close friend if they’d like something to eat, one could simply say 「何か食べる?」which glosses as “something eat?” On the other hand, asking an Executive VP of your company might sound like「何かお召し上がりますか?」which besides the word 何か, or something, uses entirely different words. Interpretation in the museum’s context lies not only in strict interpretation for meeting, but interpretation in a way so that the listener feels comfortable transgressing the norms set by the Museum, i.e. paying less than the recommended price. By asking Japanese visitors to pay as they wished, I was blowing the script for a typical business transaction completely out of the water, a script which is much more set that in English.

On Friday, February 26th, the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally settled the second portion of a lawsuit over its admissions policy after a three year long dispute. Widely covered in the press, the intention of the lawsuit was to clarify the policy for museum goers. In the New York Times, the lawyer for the plaintiffs called the result “a huge improvement.” The result was changing the price the museum asks visitors to pay from a “recommended admission” to “suggested admission.”

While I do tell the Japanese business men I teach English to that a suggestion is not quite as strong as a recommendation, I question if this settlement on semantics will make a difference for the visitors who are perhaps most unfamiliar with interpreting the museum’s policies, the international visitors and those with less facility in English. Multilingual support in museums in the US is still a relatively new thing, but it’s a topic increasingly on museums minds’, as this rundown of a Twitter discussion involving the Guggenheim, MoMa, and the Queens Museum shows. For institutions like the Met, which have public accessibility as part of their more mission, adequate support for multilingual communities within the US, as well as tourists coming from abroad, has long been lacking. So on that Friday, as I flipped the switch in my head from recomendado to sugerido, お勧め to, well… it stayed the same, and recommended to suggested, did it really make a difference? Not really. When you’re standing in line you don’t care about semantics, you just wanna get your ticket and get in.

Dominick Boyle just quit his museum jobs and is living as a digital nomad, taking the long road to Basel, Switzerland. His interests lie at the intersection of language, culture, music, and technology. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2014.


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