The Politics of Museum-Locker Psycho-Experiments

There are two entrances to the National Art Museum of Estonia (called KUMU for Kunstimuuseum) which is built into a hill. One entrance leads you straight into the main ground-floor ticket and reception area.

But if you approach the museum from the nearby park, you enter one level below the ground floor, a basement level where the cafe and auditorium are located. If you enter from the lower level, you must walk up an inclined pathway to reach the ground floor and buy your ticket. However, even before you go up to buy your ticket, you have a chance to stow your bags and coats in storage lockers on the lower level.

This is what I decided to do. As I was stashing my stuff, I noticed a sign on the lockers which read (from memory): “There are also storage lockers at the main entrance one floor above which are free.” I chuckled and thought to myself: “Why would a museum have two sets of identical storage lockers, one of which doesn’t require a coin, and one of which does?”

You see, I took “free” to mean “you don’t need a coin to operate them.” At least half of the museums I visited in Finland had storage lockers which were totally free: you just turned the key and put it in your pocket, no need to deposit any coins. “Very civilized,” I mused, “another benefit of a high-trust society.”

As it turned out, I had a 1-euro coin handy, so I decided to just use the bottom lockers. “What’s the difference?” I thought, “I’ll just get the coin back anyway. These lockers are ‘free’ too, unless you count the opportunity cost incurred by not investing that 1 euro in an interest-bearing account for 3 hours, which I calculate at €-.00000043. I can afford that.”

So in goes the 1-euro coin. I then go off to enjoy some art. When I return, I insert the key in the lock, open the door, and reach down underneath the lock mechanism to retrieve my one-euro piece from the little plastic tray.

But there was no 1-euro piece.

There was no little plastic tray.

There was only a sealed box underneath the coin slot. The locker had taken my coin. Forever. It had been designed to take my coin. Forever. The locker wasn’t free, it actually cost 1 euro.

I have never seen this before in any European country. Museum storage lockers which permanently eat your money! What a bunch of stinking chiselers! I had to fight off a strong urge to whip out the old pocketknife and get that goddamned 1-euro back, by hook or by crook. Damned if I’m going to let a bunch of Estonian aesthetes fuck me over! But then I decided that might not be such a hot idea, Estonian prisons being what they are.

Here is a handy illustration of the KUMU system:

Finland - 3

But my mind-shredding rage was soon replaced by mind-shredding curiosity: What on earth was going on here?

First I checked to see whether I’d been a dummy. Granted, the sign did try to warn me that these lockers weren’t “free like the ones upstairs. Shouldn’t that have warned me? After a period of searching and fearless introspection, I concluded: no.

Here’s my train of thought:

  1. Ordinarily, “free” and implicit “not free” would normally imply a contrast between something which costs something, and something which does not.
  2. However, this was not an ordinary context. This was the specific, narrow context of museum storage lockers.
  3. In the context of museum storage lockers, the word “free” is ambiguous for several reasons:
    1. First, nobody expects museum storage lockers to cost something. After racking my brain, I was unable to think of even one museum I’d been to which charged a non-refundable fee for merely using a locker for a few hours. I mean, this isn’t a bus station.
    2. Second, the word “free” had an obvious alternate meaning in this context: “You can use the lockers on the upper floor without a coin.” Not everyone is going to have a 1-euro coin on them, and there was no place on the bottom floor to get change. So the sign was saying: “If you have no 1-euro coin handy, no sweat! Just go upstairs!”
    3. Finally, and most compellingly from a logical perspective, the ordinary museum visitor, confronted with the reality of how this museum operates, would say to himself: “Wait, what? There are lockers on one level which cost a non-refundable fee of €1, but the exact same kind of locker on the higher level cost nothing? Why? Who in their right mind is would ever use the €1 lockers? Nobody could have created such a stupid system.” As the old German saying goes, was nicht sein darf, kann nicht sein: that which cannot be, must not be.

So I concluded no, I hadn’t been a dummy. It’s point 3.3 that really gets me: Who thought up this system, and why? Did somebody just check off the wrong box on a “museum locker” order form during construction? Is there some at least hypothetically logical reason for this?

All I could think is that maybe the museum wants to profit from high visitor numbers: if all 100 lockers on the upper floor are used, then we get to charge all the poor saps who have to use the ones on the lower floor. But then again, why? This is a huge, brand-new art museum, with tons of lockers. If they want to make money from the lockers, why not charge for all of them? Why, instead, create a two-class system of the privileged elite who get free lockers, and the downtrodden masses who must pay? That only increases the risk of civil unrest, which is not what you want in a museum.

I can only think that the lockers at the KUMU must be some sort of psychological experiment. Some behavioral economist at the University of Tallinn conceived of this experiment, and has been running it since 2006, when the museum opened. You know, like those experiments where you can split a cash payment with a stranger, but only if you choose to share it, or where you can have one cookie now or 5 tomorrow.

But what could this experiment be designed to prove? This question has been torturing me now for a month. Can anyone help?

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