Tough times force museums to be creative

Chris Bergeron

For regional museums and cultural institutions, surviving uncertain times has become an art in itself.

From Acton's Discovery Museums to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, directors must attract paying customers from home and abroad as leisure time shrinks, gas prices soar and kids spend more free time indoors and online.

Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge looks to reverse diminishing attendance with innovative programs. Some, like Framingham's Garden in the Woods, are "holding steady" trying to stay ahead of changing tastes.

Occupying their own niche, the owners of Southwick's Zoo in Mendon hope increased revenue signals visitor satisfaction and loyalty.

Gwen Stauffer, executive director of New England Wildflower Society and Garden in the Woods, might be speaking for them all as she seeks answers to changing visitor interests and concerns.

"I think a lot of cultural institutions are seeing declining attendance in recent years. It's amazing how little free time people have. They have more options. There's a lot of competition out there for their time. Cultural institutions have become a form of entertainment," she said.

Stauffer cites many of the same concerns that affect her counterparts: rising gas prices that discourage individual and school visits; a demand for exhibits to help students prepare for the MCAS; and difficulties "getting the word out" about new exhibits and programs.

"We're looking at all factors. We're in a recession. People are keeping close to home. They're facing hard choices about how they spend their leisure time and money," she said.

Directors and spokesmen of six regional museums and cultural institutions report varying attendance trends over the last several years.

Only a few released specific data about attendance but their anecdotal responses reveal concerns about the future roles such institutions will play.

Annual attendance at Old Sturbridge Village dropped from 333,585 in 2002 to 222,375 last year but rebounded strongly as a new director focuses on improving facilities and giving visitors more encounters with costumed interpreters and hands-on activities. Attendance in January 2008 shot up 23 percent from that month the year before and the museum saw a 6 percent gain in attendance from July to September 2007.

President and CFO Jim Donahue expressed hope Sturbridge has turned around a decade long decline in attendance, averaging 7 percent a year, by investing $1 million into improving facilities, upgrading the restaurant and "really identifying what we are best at" recreating the atmosphere of American life in the 1830s.

The result has been a 10 percent increase in attendance over the last year.

Recent research showed half the village's visitors are families with young children, he said. And visitors from other countries increased about 6 percent last year probably because a weakening dollar gave a better exchange rate.

The key to improving attendance, said Donahue, is to give visitors the genuine experience of visiting the past while bringing educators from the village to schools that have cut back on visits for budgetary reasons.

He also stressed museums today can't entirely rely on attendance fees but "must diversify" their revenue stream through fundraising and endowments.

"We've got to become the place where people can dive in deeply," said Donahue. "We really have to identify what we are best at and only do here."

Directors of Plimoth Plantation and Southwick's Zoo both reported increased attendance or revenues ranging from about 8 percent to 15 percent, respectively.

And Garden in the Woods and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln experienced modest increases they attribute to engaging exhibits and improved public outreach.

Each offers different experiences that have shaped their public image and customer base.

For 20 years visitors have come to Southwick's Zoo to watch staffers use brooms to scratch the backs of Bonny and Clyde, the only two white rhinos in the state. They come to Garden in the Woods not just to stroll the peaceful trails but to buy Hobble bushes and rare Kentucky lady slippers which are hard to find elsewhere. And families visit the DeCordova so one parent can play with the kids in the leafy Sculpture Park while the other views cutting edge contemporary art inside.

Without citing exact figures, Justine Brewer, president of the corporation that owns and runs 300-acre Southwick's Zoo, said annual attendance has grown steadily to about 200,000 last year resulting in a 15 percent increase in revenue, mainly from ticket sales.

She said the zoo, which has more than 500 animals, draws most visitors from a two-hour travel radius with the bulk coming from a one-hour drive.

Brewer believes the zoo, which her father started and continues as a family business, has avoided problems affecting other cultural offerings by providing family activities that encourage repeat visits and environmental exhibits that teachers can incorporate into their lessons.

"All businesses like this have peaks and valleys," said Brewer. "We've been in a growing cycle and it shows."

As Plimoth Plantation's chief operating officer, Ivan Lipton is finding that replicating Colonial life in 1628 makes business sense in the 21st century.

Since 2005 attendance has surged, growing 4 percent in 2006 and 7.5 percent in 2007, bringing annual visitation to 385,000, he said.

With 70 percent of visitors coming from out of state and many stopping on their way to Cape Cod, he attributes the increase to up-to-date exhibits and programs, an improved Web site with blogs for history buffs and a "resurgent" public interest in history sparked by books and television shows about John Adams, the Mayflower and the PBS series "Colonial House."

"Making the past relevant and easy to relate to is a big focus of our programs," said Lipton. "We're offering fresh programs that let visitors connect to their interests. That combination really works."

Over the last two years, the DeCordova Museum has experienced a steady 3 percent to 5 percent increase in attendance that Corey Cronin, director of marketing and public relations, attributed to broadly popular exhibits, an improved Web site and the lovely outdoor Sculpture Park.

"The sculpture makes a difference because it brings families with young children. One parent can stay outside while they run around and the other can go indoors to look at art. Then they switch so it works out well," he said.

Cronin said hands-on activities like the Sunday "Eye Wonder Family Program" lets visitors meet artists who help them make their own art.

While 120,000 people visited the museum in 2007, he said that number might be low because it doesn't always include multiple visits from students taking classes at the museum's school.

"In the 1980s, museums were all the rage. It was almost an in-thing to do," said Cronin. "Now when people come, they want to be inspired, to learn something."

Looking ahead, Cronin said museum officials are "being cautious in our next budget considering the recession."

The physically smallest of the six sites, the Discovery Museums in Acton has continued to experience stable, incremental growth of about 4 percent a year for the last few years, said Executive Director Michael Judd.

Last year, 138,960 people, mostly young children, parents and school groups, visited the science education museum, ranking it 22nd statewide among museums and cultural facilities.

Judd attributes the steady growth to its emphasis on science education "a hot topic with MCAS" and providing "an experience people want to do again and again."