Museums strive for more visitors

As everyday expenses and gas prices rise, museums can become an inexpensive backyard attraction for

As everyday expenses and gas prices rise, museums can become an inexpensive backyard attraction for residents or passed over as people spend their money on other things.

It’s no surprise that staff at local museums hope to end up in the first category. And some of them are working extra hard to make that happen.

“We recognize that we compete, especially in the summer months, with pools in the area and malls in the area,” said Erin Breslin, spokeswoman for the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium.

The Schenectady Museum has beefed up its hands-on exhibits and science offerings to lure more kids and their families, Breslin said.

For example, a July 26 Adventures in Science event explores “The Science of Tennis” with a demonstration, a discussion about liquid metal and an exploration of other technology that goes into the sport. In March, the makers of the popular video game “Guitar Hero” shared information with youths about game development and let them play.

In Saratoga Springs, the Saratoga Automobile Museum has added more car shows run by car clubs, which each bringing a few hundred people to the grounds and the museum in addition to the area residents who stop by to check out the show.

On Saturday, there will be 150 Pontiac Firebirds exhibited outside the museum, so Alan Edstrom, director of programs and special events, expects 300 exhibitors to attend.

“The events that we’re having are more bang for the bucks,” Edstrom said, noting that car exhibitors are now staying several days, putting more of their money into the local economy.

This summer, the museum has booked a Ferrari show during horse-racing season, and the exhibitors expect to enjoy hanging out at the track when they’re not showing off their cars.

That benefits everyone, Edstrom said — the out-of-town exhibitors, the museum, businesses and local residents. “What we’ve done is create a hub of really exciting things for people in the community to see,” he said.

Museum staffers say the efforts have paid off.

Schenectady Museum saw a 32 percent increase in attendance during the first six months of this year — 28,739 — compared to 21,721 last year, Breslin said.

And the auto museum’s memberships have jumped from 350 to 1,200 in the last two years, in part because at the special events. Exhibitors get a free short-term membership that they’re then encouraged to renew at the regular price, Edstrom said.

About 13,000 people turn out to the auto museum’s summer events and at least 40,000 visit the museum each year, he said.

So far, the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie is on track with its goals after selling 300 memberships and attracting 20,000 visitors this year, Director Eric Trahan said.

But it’s a tough time for the art museum, which just opened in September in a new building, to try to attract visitors from Syracuse to the Berkshires.

“At the point when we are trying to expand our geographic reaches, it is becoming more difficult for people to get here,” Trahan said.

The Arkell Museum is holding more special events this year than it did as a small, free museum in the old Canajoharie library. “But that’s more due to it being our first year open than anything else.”

It’s also continuing to draw a local audience with a film series and lecture series, and free admission for residents with six local ZIP codes.

Changing exhibits regularly and developing an e-mail list to remind members what’s going on can help draw people back, museum staff said.

“We’ve been working diligently to develop an electronic distribution list,” Breslin said.

They’re also trying to build more sponsorships and business partnerships as the economy gets tougher.

The auto museum has signed-up car dealerships to sponsor exhibits, an opportunity that Edstrom realizes some museums don’t have.

The Schenectady Museum brings in science professionals from local businesses to talk to youngsters about science.

“Collaboration for us is a huge thing,” Breslin said. “We’ve been working at that for many years now.”

Museums are a valuable learning experience for students, but high gas prices are making it more difficult for schools to take those extra field trips, museum staffers say.

“If you can’t get them here, it doesn’t matter whether or not they have free admission,” Edstrom said.

Most museums either already have transportation sponsorships or are working to get more for next year, since they think it will continue to be a problem.

Regardless of the economy, museums are always trying to increase attendance and come up with more valuable programs.

“Our aim every single day is to bring as many people to this park as possible,” said Gina Johnson, spokeswoman for the Saratoga National Historical Park.

The much-discussed “stay-cation” trend is expected to help local museums, the people who work for them say.

“What’s unfortunate in the economy has become a sort of benefit for the museum in that people who typically go far away are looking to do something now to stay close to come,” Breslin said.

It’s true that people often visit museums when they’re on vacation but don’t check out the ones in their own backyards, said Mike Kane, spokesman for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, adding only one of his Burnt Hills neighbors had been to the racing museum when Kane started working there.

“We’re hoping if people stay at home they’ll come and sample the museums and attractions that are available here,” he said. “Sometimes people ignore the things that are close by because they are close by.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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