Dropping in on museums

On the Monday before Christmas, I decided to combat pre-holiday restlessness with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see their (relatively new) exhibition, The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia.

I am starting to think of the Freer|Sackler as an old friend, someone I can drop in on casually when I’m bored, or unsettled, or somehow in need. Fittingly, my first visit (back in 2008) began when my mum and I stumbled through the Freer Gallery doors desperately seeking refuge from the scorching D.C. summer day outside.

I am truly fortunate to live in a city with so many free, conveniently-located cultural refuges. Providing a cultural space where visitors can enter easily, cheaply, and regularly is a powerful community service and one that I feel more museums might strive to facilitate and augment, if possible. This is one way that a museum could, if it made sense for the particular institution, become more like a park (see my past post on the subject).

Every museum is inevitably restricted by physical and geographical constraints and limited resources. However, I wonder how museums might augment what they already have to make themselves community spaces that support casual, drop-in visits. If a museum or exhibit can’t offer free admission, what are some other ways it can reduce barriers to entry and encourage regular, spontaneous visitation? I’ve noticed that many museums offer free admission days. Also, lunch-time museum programs seem like a great way to provide value and regularly varied content.

Here’s another thought: Could museums offer month-long passes, or multi-visit passes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could return to something you enjoyed, or split a museum’s galleries into multiple short visits, or return to a favorite exhibit with a friend—without having to pay for admission a second time? Perhaps this option would increase visitation without reducing admissions revenue? Does a market (beyond me) exist for such options?

Museums that are set up to support short, casual visits seem particularly child and family-friendly. The pressure (on caregivers) to make the visit meaningful and successful is possibly alleviated by the knowledge that they can easily come back another day. And if things go really well, then the ability to return easily becomes an opportunity to re-visit favorite displays or show them to other family members!

Based on my experience leading outings (both as a nanny and a support worker), free or ‘no-fuss’ exhibits and programs definitely feel more accessible than paid ones, and can frequently be undertaken more spontaneously.

Which museums do you frequent, and what museum qualities make this possible? Do you see value in drop-in style or narrowly focused visits? What might be the role of design in supporting these visits? In my experience, the museums with which you develop these kinds of relationships are lifelong companions, fondly remembered and indelibly imprinted on your experience. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Johnson Museum of Art, the many times I used the art to help my language students practice their English, and the peaceful times I spent looking out over my college campus from the fifth floor gallery.