The Shedd Aquarium is free for Illinois residents during several days in January and February. Credit: Provided

CHICAGO — The Chicago Public Library has phased out its popular Museum Pass Program just as many families are looking for fun summer activities such as visiting local institutions and attractions.

With Museum Pass, adults could check out a physical Kids Museum Passport for two adults and two children to gain free entry to a local institution like the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry and others.

Those physical passes will no longer be offered. Instead, Chicago Public Library is joining the statewide Explore More Illinois program, a service through which Illinois public libraries provide free and discounted tickets to museums, science centers, sporting events, zoos, park districts, theaters and other cultural venues, according to the Explore More Illinois website. 

The change was made earlier this month, according to a statement from the Reaching Across Illinois Libraries System, the group behind Explore More Illinois.

Chicago Public Library cardholders can sign up online using their card’s barcode and PIN. Once logged in, the page displays discounted admission offers for the upcoming three months, and a user can reserve a digital pass for a specific date, according to the website.

Representatives from Explore More Illinois said the program will provide Chicagoans with additional offers as attractions previously offered through Museum Pass move over to the Explore More Illinois online portal.

“This will transform Explore More Illinois into a true statewide cultural and recreational pass program, as the program will be available to all Illinois public libraries,” according to the statement from the state libraries system.

Patrick Molloy, the director of government and public affairs for the Chicago Public Library, said the library began exploring other options when the museum passes expired last year.

He said some museums that participated began offering free and reduced days on their own, so no longer wanted to be a part of the program.

Increasing accessibility was a big consideration, Molloy said.

“The way it was before was that everyone had to go to their physical branch and to check out a [physical] pass and you weren’t able to put a hold on it. So if your branch was out of the museum pass — like, there were people who were driving around trying to find a location where they could get it, and really, this digital process is a lot easier on the patrons, they can still go into the branch, and can seek assistance and kind of reserving that through the computer,” Molloy said.

Explore More Illinois was the best solution, he said.

But some parents disagree. They said the switch may disadvantage Chicago families, and they think the changes haven’t been advertised effectively.

The Adler Planetarium at Museum Campus on Nov. 19, 2021.

Kelly Connolly of Albany Park heard about the new program through a local parents’ Facebook group. Connolly said she hadn’t seen any notices about the digital passes at her local branch despite visiting frequently with her family. 

Connolly and other parents recently noticed the signs that advertised the passport program and listed the availability for physical museum passes at their local branches were removed. They found out through librarians or flyers that the program had transitioned to digital-only through Explore More Illinois, Connolly said.

Chicago Public Library branches previously had plastic signs that showed which physical museum passes could be checked out. Credit: Provided

Finding information online was also difficult, she said.

“If you log on to the Chicago Public Library page, there’s nothing pinned, there’s no information about it. If you search in the Chicago Library website for digital passes, you’ll find a very nondescript page, no image, and you can click on it. That takes you to another external site for Explore More Illinois,” Connolly said.

Jesse Thomas, a father of three in Lincoln Square, saw flyers about the digital passes at his local library. He said members of his book club were disappointed about the changes.

“They saw it as like when you live in a city with a family, you usually have a smaller private space, so it’s more important to go out and do things with your family, to take advantage of the cultural resources we have in the city. And this is just a way that this change will make it like harder to do so for them,” Thomas said.

Local institutions with passes still available though the new program include the Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, Chicago Children’s Museum, Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Museum of Contemporary Art and National Museum of Mexican Art , according to the Explore More Illinois website.

A full list of participating attractions, some of which are in Iowa and Wisconsin, can be found online.

‘It Just Becomes A Lot Less Feasible And Flexible’

Some institutions had been part of the museum pass program and aren’t in the new one, including Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.

Johnny Ford, the director of public relations for Shedd Aquarium, said the aquarium already offers reduced or free admission to one-third of its annual 1.9 million visitors through the national Museums for All program, which provides free or reduce admission to families who show their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card.

Shedd also offers discounts and free days for Illinoisans and Chicagoans, teachers, military personnel and others through its website, Ford said.

Representatives for Adler did not respond to a request for comment, but the planetarium offers a similar slate of free and discounted days. Adler also participates in Museums For All.

A young visitor looks at Pictus catfish at Shedd Aquarium. Credit: Provided

Adults in Explore Illinois are limited to three active digital passes at a time, according to the Chicago Public Library website. Once you reserve a pass, you can print or download it onto your phone, according to the signup page. After downloading the pass, it counts toward your limit and cannot be renewed, according to the website.

Participating institutions vary in whether they accept mobile or printed passes, according to the Chicago Public Library website.

Connolly said she doesn’t believe digital passes will be a big draw for families, and having to print out some passes will be a hassle.

“It feels like, ‘Oh, digital access is gonna make it easier for people so they don’t have to go to the library to check out the physical card and bring it back,’” Connolly said. “But, if I was a young parent, and I walked into my library and I didn’t know about this, how would I even find out?”

While the passes from the library’s previous program could be loaned out for a week and used on any date during that time, the digital passes can only be used on specific days, parents said.

“It feels to me like this is reducing access. It adds on more institutions that are around Illinois and Wisconsin, but I don’t know families in Chicago who are like, ‘I want to go to the Bix Beiderbecke Museum in Davenport, Iowa,” Connolly said. “They want to go to the Museum of Science and Industry … they want to go to the Shedd. So I feel like this is like the ghost bus of museum access for Chicagoans.”

The Field Museum at Museum Campus on Nov. 19, 2021.

With the changes, Thomas said he thinks his family will be visiting local museums less often because it would be more expensive in some instances.

Thomas also said the Chicago Public Library should be clear about what the goals of the new program are, whether it’s making education and culture more accessible, scaling back the program or encouraging people to see other attractions throughout Illinois.

“I think the great thing about the Museum Pass program is that it kind of gave you another option to [go to the museum] more often, and the bottom line is now we wouldn’t do it as much,” Thomas said. “I love that we didn’t have to go to Florida for my kids to like to see dolphins or have a cool experience with ocean life. We could do that right here in the city, but now it just becomes a lot less feasible and flexible in order to do that for my family.”

Connolly said the library’s program needs to be better advertised.

“I understand if they want to get rid of the physical part of it. But they need to promote this, or else it really isn’t supporting the library’s mission of equal access to resources for people throughout Chicago,” Connolly said.