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.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.
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.
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