Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Hours Should Museums Be Open?

An exhibiting artist approached me recently at an evening event at the museum. "Hey!," he said, "I have some feedback for you. You know, the hours that you're open--they're not very accessible for people who work."

He's right. They aren't. We're open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. And if you work and or have a family, that doesn't exactly make it easy to visit.

This isn't rocket science. But it's a question that many museums seem to address inadequately. We try so hard to make our visitors feel welcome and comfortable once they're inside, ignoring the glaring obstacle that may prevent them from even getting in the door.

It's interesting to me that so many museums debate admission fees but don't get comparably riled up about open hours. Some of the most innovative, community-focused museums I know of are trapped in the 11-5 game, and it's frankly a little bizarre--especially from visitors' perspective.

The obvious outcome of daytime hours is fewer visitors. But it also has a lot of other chicken-egg effects. Imagine if a theater or jazz club was only open during the day, and what conclusions one might draw about audience type and preferences based on that decision. For example, in museums:
  • Retirees and vacationers--two groups with daytime availability--become primary audiences that receive significant attention and subtly influence programming choices. Who would be "core" audiences if our institutions were open from 3-9pm instead of closing at 5? How might programming shift to support them?
  • Evening events provide rare opportunities to experience the museum after work. Are these events popular because of programming, or are they popular because of the hours? Would events be as significant in the experience of young adult audiences if there were more opportunities to experience the exhibitions after work without special programming?

In thinking about whether, why, and how we might rethink hours at my institution, I've come with the following list of pro's and con's for shifting the hours later.

  • more accessible to working people
  • more symbiotic with times people are recreating downtown (dinner, happy hour, shopping)
  • separates school tours from public visiting hours, which can be helpful in a small building
  • requires changes to staffing and signage
  • can't rent the museum for lucrative evening events as often. If we're open every evening, it cripples this business. If we're open only a few evenings, it may confuse visitors.
What do you think? What questions should I consider in examining this? What have you seen change--or not--when hours change? What institutions are worth looking at to learn more? I'm particularly curious about other cultural and community organizations--libraries, performing art spaces--and how hours impact their use and value.
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