Monday, February 6, 2012

You got your Chocolate in my Peanut Butter!!! Adventures in Museum Free Days

It's a rare day when my geek side runs smackdab into my museum side...

I checked one of my favorite web comics today and experienced it with a smile. Real Life Comics, a semi-autobiographical comic by Greg Dean, is usually about gaming, technology, Pepsi, Star Trek, and retro-scifi references. Today, it had a cautionary tale of how a museum "Free Day" can backfire...

I think a lot of us in the museum field have seen this and, unfortunately, a lot of our visitors have experienced it. I understand how it happens and have pushed for them myself. We (the well-intentioned on the inside of the museum) see that the visitation may not be what we want, the visitors may be mostly Vanilla - older, sedate, wealthier, white people, or we may just be trying to generate some buzz.

As a result of these desires, we can do a few different things, one of which is the "Free Day." Add in free food and you could have a catastrophe on your hands... OK, I don't see it getting too bad, but you get the idea. Your museum picks a date, advertises it, puts on extra volunteers and staff and you get more people in the door, providing a service to an underserved group of your constituency and earning some good press while you are doing it. You did call the paper, right? OK, good...

So, your visitation increases, your public image rises, but is the museum experience improved? Too often, there are the tales of woe - such as Greg, Liz, and little Harper's experience in Sacramento. If nothing else, this is a learning experience. If you get big lines for your free day, that is a good thing. Make a change in the future to accomodate:
  • Make a Free Weekend
  • Make more Free Days (quarterly, monthly, etc.)
  • Give everyone in the local area a Free day to be used - track them by ID or print "Admit One Family" coupons in the paper.
  • Get local governments and businesses in on the fun - Our local city government gave all of their employees a ticket to use for their families. We tracked the numbers and billed the city. OK, that wasn't free, but it was for the visitors.

Regardless of how you do it, make sure the experience is good. The expectation is already low. Say it with me: "you get what you pay for..."

If you make it special, keep the kids entertained, and make the adults feel like it was worth getting up from the TV or computer and driving (with the kids) to your place, you win.

Now, do something about the lines...