The Dunsmuir Estate’s No Photography Policy Sucks, Oh Yeah and So Does Their Bait and Switch Admission Scam (Updated)

The Dunsmuir Estate, Oakland, California

So one of the things in this bad economy that my wife and I try to do is to try and find lots of free things that we can do with our four children. While we have and have had family memberships at many museums and public estates (including Filoli Gardens in Woodside) over the years, we also try to take advantage of free days as well that many museums also make available. So we were pleased when we got an email this morning from from the Historic Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate in Oakland reminding us that today was free admission Family First Sundays. You can see the email below which clearly indicates that admission today is free. They mention a tour of the estate as well (that we were not interested in) but it clearly states free admission. So after making the trek out to the estate we were disappointed when we were told at the gate that we would need to pay $18 if we wanted to get in.

The Dunsmuir Estate's Bait and Switch Admission Scam

Now I know what you’re thinking, so what, it’s only $18. But that’s not the point. Money’s tight right now for everyone and we’d just spent a bunch of gas money driving down there only to be told that we’d either have to pay an admission fee or be turned away. I told the woman at the gate that in their email it said that the first Sunday of the month was free but she wouldn’t have it, insisting that we pay the $18. So reluctantly I shelled out the $18 and we headed into the estate. At least I’ll be able to get some good photos out of it I thought. But then again, imagine my disappointment when we’d arrived at the estate and I saw a big “No Photography” sign in front of the estate.

The Dunsmuir Estate's Stupid No Photography PolicyNow, before heading out to see the estate I did a thorough review of their website and saw no photography prohibition anywhere on the site. What’s more, I was not told about the “no photography” policy at the front gate before they took my money when I had a extra large Canon 5D Mark II hanging around my neck. No, it wasn’t until they already had your money that they decided to inform you about this policy.

When I asked the docent Marla, why the no photo policy, she replied to me “oh, well it’s a museum.” When I told Marla that actually most museums allow photograpphy she replied back to me, “well, if we allowed photography it would slow the tour down.” Now personally I think that’s one of the lamest reasons I’ve ever heard for banning photography. I’ve had the opportunity to tour many different historic estates — Hearst Castle, the Filoli Estate in Woodside, the Pittock Mansion in Portland — and all of them have always allowed personal photography. So I was double bummed after being promised a free Sunday for my family to find that now my joy and past time of photography was also being denied.

Overall my experience touring the Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate was a terrible one. I would not recommend a visit. Especially if you are a photographer you’ll be annoyed by their photography prohibition for no reasonable reason whatsoever.

You know what else bums me out? After I got home and pulled up their website to see if they had more on their admission policy there, it says that children 11 and under are free and adults are $5. So not only did they charge me when they shouldn’t have. They even overchaged me the standard admission by charging a fee for my four children who I clearly told the person at the gate were 4, 6, 7 and 8. All four under 11. Now I know times are tough for non-profits, and for all I know maybe the ticket charger woman was simply scamming us and pocketing the money herself, but baiting and switching people promising them a free family day and then charging them $18 when they arrive is not right.

I’ve sent an email on this matter to their Executive Director Jim DeMersman and hopefully will be able to obtain a refund and also get them to reconsider their ban on photography.

If you’d like to see photos of mine from two estates with more reasonable photography policies, you can find my photos from the Filoli Estate here and from the Pittock Mansion here.

Update: I received word back from the Dunsmuir Estate. In addition to providing me a refund for my visit, they are also considering opening up the property to photography in the near future. If and when they update their photo policy I will post that here as well. Jackie Antig, their Marketing and PR Manager, sent me the following email below:

“Hello Thomas:

I understand the frustrations you face as money is indeed scarce and treasured even more so than any other time in recent history. Bearing this in mind, our staff wholeheartedly spends its time and energy thinking thoughtfully about the programs and price points we offer. We envision meaningful experiences for our community and are truly heartbroken that you left feeling unsatisfied and deceived. My earnest hope is that I may be able to shed some light onto the matters you’ve outlined.

The admission rates for our Family First Sundays are two fold as indicated by the price stratification in the notification you received. To enter the grounds to explore, picnic and enjoy the activities we offered is free. As your family saw, the Estate is an incredibly beautiful place and is befitting of quaint and intimate strolls and picnics; many people opt against going on a tour and choose to simply enjoy the setting.

The other element of the aforementioned admission structure pertains to the mansion tours. To participate in a mansion tour is $5 per adult and children under the age of 11 are free. Since your family chose to go on a docent-led tour, you were asked for admission. You should have only had to pay $10 in total for both you and your wife and your children should have been let in for free, instead of the $18 that was asked of you. Our deepest and sincerest of apologies for the confusion over this matter. I understand full well the shock that overcame you when you traversed to the Estate not expecting to pay. We will happily reimburse you in full to any mailing address you wish to disclose.

This experience is telling of the elements of miscommunication in our communication channels, both between us and our public and amongst ourselves. While there was a lot of thought invested in thoroughly articulating our admission rates, you have helped us see that more has to be done to be clear so that individuals like yourself are well informed when making choices about their time and money. Additionally, we must also make extra strides to be sure that the ticket booth attendants are fully and accurately knowledgeable about our rates and are open and hospitable to the concerns of our patrons since you noted having expressed your confusion to them right away.

With regards to our no photography policy, we are currently in the midst of reviewing it and have been for some time now. I agree with you that it needs to be reconsidered and should it remain as it is, there should be complete visibility about it in all of our key communication avenues, like our website. Photography is an art, a window into the poetic everyday experience that documents who we are as individuals and as a collective society. We are hoping that in a short time, the interior of the mansion will be part of that story through the insightful eyes of our community.

With immense sincerity,

Jackie Antig”

14 Replies to “The Dunsmuir Estate’s No Photography Policy Sucks, Oh Yeah and So Does Their Bait and Switch Admission Scam (Updated)”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Thomas. I live in Louisiana so I wouldn’t be considering a trip to Dunsmuir anytime soon anyway, but people need to know about places that do this kind of thing. Hopefully their head honcho will make it right. Please keep us updated…

  2. sickntired08, I did. I just emailed their Executive Director asking for one. I’ll update here if/when I get a response back from them.

  3. Todd, at least this report is already on the first page of their “Dunsmuir Estate” Google search. At least people locally here who might consider a visit can be warned about the fake free First Sunday scam along with the “no photography” policy before they consider a visit.

  4. No video, no photos, more gain for the museum if sell photos and photobooks.
    I understand this prohibition only for use of the flash, not in all other cases.
    More estate photos on the web is equal to more word-of-mouth and more visitors, imho

  5. I recall taking my son there during one of their grade school field trips some years ago … didn’t enjoy the place at all and yeah, the ‘no-photo’ policy made the experience even worse. Plus it was pouring hard that day and we had to walk back to the muddy parking lot after the tour. Definitely not a pleasant experience.

    So they allow people to take photos at SFMOMA now? Cool. May have to visit the place this Tuesday. Free entrance on first Tuesday of the month, just so you know.

  6. Thank you for sharing. I can’t believe they made you pay to get in on free family Sunday.In past years I would go there to take family portraits during the week and never had to pay. Do you know if they let photographers on the grounds to do outdoor portraits?

  7. I don’t know how old your children are but at any age mine would have gone kicking and screaming. They hated going to these sort of things. I congratulate you on trying to give your children some culture.

    I have visited museums and estates all over the world and there really is a variety of what is allowed photographically. I agree that they should absolutely make this known on their website and it is somewhat underhanded to not to. I have visited sites that have not allowed photography and have quite enjoyed myself. I just suck it up and begrudgingly accept their rules. It is their property and their rules. So long as there is no public money funneled to them, I don’t see a big problem with them making a rule such as this.

  8. I think there might be some overreaction here – I was actually pretty surprised to read this.

    I also chose to take my kids to the Dunsmuir Estate on Sunday after reading the email, and I was fully aware that they would charge admission to the mansion – after all, it was pretty clearly stated right in the body of the email that the admission fee for the tour was $5. I agree that you should not have been charged for your children, but I do think you should have read the email before complaining.

    As for not being able to photograph, that rule only applies to the mansion itself. I agree the rules should be mentioned on the site, but at the same time I do not know of many museums where you can actually take photos inside. The grounds are beautiful, and I took plenty of lovely photos of my kids on Sunday with no trouble from anyone.

    People would do well to remember that this Estate is a non-profit, and does what it can to contribute to the East Bay. Obviously they are not working on a corporate budget, and have to rely on people who are kind enough to volunteer to take tickets at the door rather than trained employees. I am sure the estate will refund you for any errors made. But to complain about paying when you didn’t bother to read the advert they sent you? That’s just petty.

  9. Balex. I did read the advert they sent me. I didn’t want to take the tour of the mansion. I told that to the person taking tickets. I simply wanted to view the estate. My kids actually hated the tour as did I.

    I told the ticket taker that I didn’t want to take the tour but she said that this was the only way to gain entrance. I told her that estate only entrance was supposed to be free on the first Sunday and she said it was not. That the only way to enter the Estate was to pay for tour tickets. I tried to pull up the original email to review it at the time on my iPhone but I could not get reception there.

    I had zero interest in the tour, but once having paid decided that I may as well see it. I regret I even did that as the whole thing was irritating to me as I hate going anywhere period where I can’t take photos. Nowhere was the no photography policy disclosed prior to the mansion — either on the website or at the point of ticket purchase.

    You say you don’t know many museums where you can take photos? Actually at most museums you can. Here in SF that includes the de Young, Academy of Science, Exploratorium, The Legion of Honor, the SF MOMA, even small little museums like the Cable Car Museum. In the East Bay you can take photos at the Oakland Museum of California, the Chabot Observatory, the Lawrence Hall of Science Museum.

    Further afield I’ve taken photos inside the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The MET in New York, The Chicago Art Institute in Chicago.

    In terms of historic homes/estates the only ones I’ve ever visited are Hearst Castle, the Filoli Estate in Woodside, the Pittock Mansion in Portland and the Pardee Home in Oakland’s Preservation Park.

    Every single one of the above museums allows photography. With the exception of some contemporary arts museums who cite copyright concerns, in fact most museums allow personal photography.

    Citing the concern of “slowing the tour down,” as a legitimate reason to restrict photography at the Dunsmuir Estate is lame and arbitrary. They need to get with the times and remove this unnecessary and visitor unfriendly policy. If they don’t then they need to prominently advertise it on their website, emails and at the gate prior to people paying money.

  10. Thomas – 110% agree. Their website is a deception and should not be left as an “oh well”. Non profit or not ethical behaviour has to mean something. As for the no photography – I have been burned by this type of thing – you’re in the facility only then to learn that there’s no photography – Once I was at the EMP – Experience Music Project in Seattle and they did that to me – I had a bessa RF and with Jimi Hendrix blaring in the background ( I am a JH fan) I shot away ! Public disobedience

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