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Museum Day offers knowledge for no cost

More than 1,300 museums take part in event, open doors to visitors with free voucher

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What do Michael Jackson’s guitar-shaped belt buckle, an ivory telescope and a rotary jail have in common?

They’re just a few of the unusual objects visitors can see for free on Sept. 25 during Smithsonian magazine's Museum Day. More than 1,300 museums, planetariums, zoos and other attractions around the country will be offering free admission — for two — to anyone who presents a voucher.

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“Some museum admission fees can exceed $20 for one person,” said Rosie Walker, associate publisher of Smithsonian Media. “So for at least one Saturday we wanted to take that barrier away. We hope people will be courageous with their choices and visit a museum they wouldn’t normally pay to see.”

Last year, more than 300,000 people took advantage of the Smithsonian’s free offer. This year, organizers expect to top that by at least 20 percent. “We have about 50 new museums participating, and many museums will be offering prizes, special tours and events as well,” Walker said.

Free admission plus special events
While museums count on revenue brought in by paying customers, free publicity can be priceless. “Museums have to be willing to try new ways of working with audiences,” said Steven Lubar, director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and a professor at Brown University.

Chicago's Adler Planetarium, where the normal daily admission price is $27 for adults and $21 for children, will feature a special solar-powered telescope. In addition to sky shows, the fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft and many hands-on exhibits, the Adler is also displaying a rare ivory telescope, circa 1660, from Germany, as well as many other antique and state-of-the-art observation instruments.

Image: Rotary Jail
Courtesy of Rotary Jail Museum
The Rotary Jail housed prisoners from 1882 until 1967.

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where admission is normally $9, is offering special docent tours, free souvenirs and a sweepstakes for a ceramic vase. The museum explores the American West with artifacts that include Annie Oakley's shotgun and Buffalo Bill Cody's saddle, as well as the flashy guitar-shaped belt-buckle and other western-themed costumes and accessories once worn by Michael Jackson.

The Rotary Jail Museum in Crawfordsville, Ind., is expecting fresh faces for free tours of the 16 pie-shaped cells in the curious rotating jailhouse built in 1882. “People go out of their way to do something that's free,” said Alice Smith-Goeke, assistant director of the museum. “Admission at our museum is usually only $3, but for some larger families that adds up quickly. Participating in the Smithsonian’s annual Museum Day means we can serve a part of the community that may not otherwise be able to afford it.”

Biggest bang for your buck
There are popular museums around the country where admission for a family of four can top $75 — or even $100 — and some of them are participating in Museum Day. Using a free admission voucher at one of these sites can be a great value.

In addition to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (regular adult admission: $20) and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City ($22), here are some “best deal” destinations to consider:

  • The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, a four-story rainforest, an albino alligator, African penguins and thousands of other live animals. Regular admission is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for students & seniors.
  • The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., houses the country’s largest collection of rockets and space memorabilia. The center also has a wide variety of flight simulation attractions, such as a g-force accelerator and a space shot that are included with the regular admission — $24.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids.
  • Visitors can pretend to shoot guns, solve crimes and get fingerprinted at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C. Normal admission $19.95 per person.

“There may be a museum you’ve always been curious about, but that $18 admission price has kept you away because you're just not sure you'll like what's inside,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “This Saturday would definitely be the day to go.”

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  • Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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