Monday, June 15, 2009


When I was in Washington a couple weeks ago, I was looking up museum hours, and remembered the summer I lived in Washington--and how great it was that the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery were free and open late. I was unemployed that summer and it was a great joy to be able to just wander in, in the evening, when the tourists had gone home, and enjoy the collections, the exhibits, and the spaces.

That memory made me wonder about museum hours today. I see museums cutting back hours, but perhaps we should be figuring out how to increase hours, or at least to change them to times more convenient to our audiences--or our potential audiences. Many large urban museums have days when they're open late--but a quick search of small upstate New York museums show that few have embraced changing hours--notably the Ontario County Historical Society and the Arkell Museum both have later hours.

I was curious if other museums had contemplated change, so posted a query to the Upstate History Alliance list-serv. I was surprised to get few responses, but pleased to get this thoughtful one from Star D'Angelo, director of the Shaker Heritage Society:
We have been discussing this issue a lot lately. My museum is interested in changing our operating hours. Changing our operating hours will require reprinting a lot of costly marketing materials not to mention the time we would invest in updating our info on websites, travel catalogs, etc. I'm thinking that any change will need to be made at the same time that we launch a new marketing effort.

We may start by testing some evening hours next summer to see what kind of response we get before investing in the transition. Currently we are open Tues-Sat 9:30-4pm because that is how it has always been. We probably won't be able to afford adding staff to expand hours so if we do stay open later during the summer months it will mean asking current staff to alter their work schedules so that we would open later and close later during one or two days of the week.

One other thing we are doing is making walking tour brochures available for after hours visitors. We will eventually consider cell phone tours that could be accessed at any time. Buildings obviously would not be open but at least people could get some information and see the exteriors of our nine historic structures while enjoying the cemetery, herb garden, etc.
In the last few weeks, I've noticed that at several different malls in the evening there have been very few people. This downturn in the economy may represent a real opportunity for museums to attract visitors away from shopping, which costs more money, to museums, which cost little. Star's approach--understanding the costs, the need for change, the marketing needs, and the need for staff adjustment--is one that may pay definite rewards.

But what's keeping museums from it? I heard a few, "we've always done it this way," some "it's easier to find volunteers during the day," (Really? how about people who work?), and perhaps most annoying to me, the idea that staff are unwilling to change their work schedules. I've run a small museum and worked with many others. I know how hard the staff work--but I also know that many organizations are stuck in ruts. I believe that the adventurous, forward-thinking museums will come out best from these tough economic times, and that those who say, "we've always done it that way," will find themselves stranded along the roadside, left behind.

Top to bottom:
First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum
Museum closed sign, Kyiv, from Sergii Kovalev's Flickr
Local history closed sign, Great Britain, from Andy Roberts' Flickr


Nina Simon said...

Nice post, Linda. I think it makes a lot of sense to make your open hours demand-driven. What days/times are the majority of your desired audience seeking recreational/cultural experiences? Figure that out, and then design your hours to match. Some entrepeneurial venues even change their pricing depending on the day/time.

I understand the expense around graphics and collateral. But the staff entrenchment issue is a shame.

Sarah H. said...

There is a flipside to "staff entrenchment" in small museums. In really small museums, there are often one or two people who do work really hard (as you pointed out, Linda), and do work insane (and often unpaid) hours outside of their schedules. And it's no wonder they aren't always willing to change their schedules even more. Sometimes, staff entrenchment is another way to say staff exhaustion.

When I read this post, part of me was saying, "Oh yeah, we could totally be open later hours at our small museum" and another part of me was saying, "But then I would see my family even less than I do now." Life-work balance is a tricky thing in any workplace and sometimes, it's easy to forget how stretched small museum staff really are. I already get enough complaints from the family about the hours I do work!

Anyway, there were some very thought-provoking points in this post, and it all merits careful consideration. I do agree that museums need to be aware of and act on their audiences' needs and desires; we just need to maintain a balance with the needs and desires of the staff.

Linda Norris said...

Nina, I particularly like that you mention desired audience, rather than just the audience you have now, and focus on all their interests, not just their museum going patterns.

Sarah, I'm very sympathetic and would strenuously argue that these different hours should mean a real re-thinking of staff hours and responsibilities--not just more work.

I heard the other day about a mid-sized museum, because of tight budgets, now required all senior staff to spend some time working at the front desk--actually not a bad idea to learn about what your visitors really think.

So I hope that if small museums do rethink hours they do it as a process of understanding that their staffs aren't superhuman, and that by rethinking all of the work, that such small museums could be both more community-oriented and better places for all of us to work.

Sarah H. said...

I agree that a change in hours can be done if staff hours and responsibilities are carefully re-thought. We've tossed it back and forth at our museum. I was hoping to play devil's advocate, because unfortunately such changes aren't always made with care and consideration. And I wanted to bring in the point of view of a place that really just has two staff people that do it all from cleaning toilets to interpretation to community programming.

And of course, we museum folk have a tendency to forget we aren't superhuman!