Every once in awhile, I'll receive a promotional e-mail that merits perusing.
One came last week from The Smithsonian Institution, which is working with 1,400 museums nationwide to offer free admission on what the organization is billing as "Museum Day Live" on Sept. 29.
It's a great concept, and several participating facilities are within an easy drive of the Modesto area. The list includes military museums, cultural museums, art museums and even a cartoon museum.
Still, with gas prices rising again due to the excuse de jour, and so many people struggling financially, even a free ticket can be prohibitive if it involves travel.
Which brings us to the smaller museums right here in the valley. Virtually every town has its own museum. Most stick a tip jar on the front desk but don't require visitors to pay. They rely on contributions, grants, fund-raisers, gift-shop sales and the taxpayer to keep the doors open.
Yet it's safe to suggest that the majority of residents in Stanislaus County never have visited their towns' museums, most of which lean on volunteers and keep limited hours. Some are open by appointment.
Most schools have cut back their field trips because of budget woes, even though some exhibits are within walking distance of the campuses. And that's too bad, because children tend to remember their field trips and usually return at some point.
Hence, these museums often are the best-kept, no-charge educational- opportunity secrets in their own communities. Think not? If you live in Modesto, Oakdale, Turlock, Newman or any other community, ask yourself when you last visited the museum there? Or if you even know where it is located?
The McHenry Museum in downtown Modesto averages about 2,000 visitors per month. That translates to roughly 24,000 people a year. The city's population stands at about 210,000. Assume that some of the 24,000 visit at least twice during the year while others might be out-of-towners. That further illustrates how few Modestans take advantage of an excellent museum that frequently changes its exhibits and whose docents are extremely well-versed on the city's history.
Meanwhile, the small museum in Oakdale drew only 608 visitors in 2011, when it began advertising to promote its new exhibits under new management. This year, though, it's concentrated on reorganizing the museum. At the halfway point of the year, only 180 people had visited the exhibits in the former Sydnor residence, Oakdale's first building something I learned by visiting the museum.
Oakdale's population is just under 21,000. Some of the 608 visitors in 2011 were repeaters, meaning the museum drew probably around 2 percent of its population base.
Occasionally, students will visit to get information for their California history projects. But in this age of standardized testing, the elementary schools rarely use the museum as a teaching tool, said Don Riise of the Friends of Oakdale Heritage group that runs the city-owned museum.
"Not hardly at all," he said. "I'm very disappointed we haven't gotten the attention of those classes."
Parents will bring their children to the museum, saying they've seen it for years and finally decided to visit.
"They'll say they don't have much time, but they'll end up staying quite a while," Riise said.
And when he checked the donation box one day last week, Riise was pleasantly surprised to find it contained two $5 bills.
"That never happens," he said, adding that the average donation is closer to a buck.
Beyond the small museums in virtually every town, there also are outstanding military museums in Ripon, at the Modesto Airport and at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.
Oakdale's Cowboy Museum offers a tribute to the Old West.
None charges admission, meaning that each day they're open is a "Museum Live Day." They tell the stories of their respective towns or cultures.
It's a shame so few people take advantage.
Go to www.smithsonian.com/museumdaylive and download two free tickets per household to any one of the participating 1,400 museums nationwide.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.