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”