While most major museums are based in urban centers or tourist hubs, those located in more rural areas face a unique challenge to expand their reach. Without a large local population or a steady flow of out-of-towners, how can isolated institutions compete for visitors?
The Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) is one such museum, located in the small city of Martinsville, Virginia, positioned halfway between Greensboro, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia. Since our 2010 reaccreditation from AAM, where the commission identified this geographical isolation as a major limitation, VMNH has worked to find new ways to expand the museum’s audience locally and throughout the region. Here are some of our most successful experiments in that time, with our advice for others in our position who may want to replicate them.
1. Specialty Science Festivals
After observing that a high percentage of our annual visitation occurred during special weekend events, VMNH chose to lean into the “pulsed visitation” model. Starting in 2017, the VMNH board and staff began to prioritize hosting quarterly science festivals to increase visitor numbers. These events have been designed as draws for people with special interests, with themes ranging from bugs to reptiles. These special occasions have proven an effective motivator for attendance. Families are willing to drive longer distances for an institution-wide dinosaur festival, for instance, than for a visit to the museum on a typical day.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Since then, VMNH has increased annual visitation throughout Virginia and North Carolina by hosting science festivals. At VMNH’s recent Dino Festival, only 39 percent of our visitors came from Martinsville and its surrounding communities. These festivals draw in museumgoers throughout the region, with some visitors driving from two or three hours away to attend our events.
Beyond increasing visitation, the festivals serve as mission-based earned revenue events and are a draw to corporate sponsors. VMNH has found that many of our corporate donors are more excited to support mission-related events than fundraisers like golf tournaments. Additionally, while the museum ticket covers the cost of all activities at the festival, we have recently expanded our earned revenue potential by selling festival-branded merchandise like t-shirts, posters, and cups.
Action Step: Instead of investing in an expensive blockbuster exhibition rental, a flashy weekend event can serve as a cost-effective option to draw in geographically dispersed visitors. The New York State Museum used a similar festival model with its annual Rock and Fossil Fun Fair. For institutions with outdoor space, museums and cultural organizations across the country have increased winter visitation with unique light displays and other holiday events.
2. Lowering Barriers to Entry
While it’s essential for all twenty-first-century museums to prioritize affordable access, it’s even more important for those in communities like Martinsville, where 46.4 percent of individuals in the city and surrounding county are living 200 percent below the federal poverty line. While VMNH has participated in the IMLS’s Museums for All program since 2014, which offers reduced admission rates of two dollars for adults and one dollar for children, many Martinsville residents had been unable to afford a visit, when factoring in the added costs.
In April 2021, VMNH partnered with three local corporations to expand our Museums for All program. Hooker Furnishings, Carter Bank and Trust, and the Community Foundation Serving Western Virginia now underwrite the remaining admission fees, allowing all museumgoers with an EBT card to visit the museum for free. In the first twenty months of the subsidized program, thirty-two hundred people were able to visit the museum at no cost.
Visitors are also able to take advantage of the Museums for All program during our science festivals and other special events. At last year’s Halloween festival, Bonez and Booz, 48 percent of our visitors attended for free through the Museums for All program. While VMNH markets our Museums for All program through the Department of Social Services, we’re now also partnering with a media firm to spread the word with local churches, Greek letter organizations, and other social clubs.
Action Step: While more than twelve hundred museums participate in IMLS’s Museums for All program, not as many offer free admission to EBT card holders. Finding a corporate donor to subsidize your Museums for All program can provide greater access and increase attendance at your institution.
3. Extending the Museum’s Footprint
As the state’s natural history museum, VMNH’s mission is to serve all Virginians. However, as Martinsville is hours away from the state’s major population hubs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, visiting the museum is unrealistic for many state residents. Following a feasibility study, VMNH determined the most effective solution to expand our visitor and earned revenue base was to open a branch location in a more central location, which we are now constructing in Waynesboro, Virginia. As a museum operated by the state government, the Waynesboro Branch Campus has been made possible because of funding from the Commonwealth’s legislature.
The Waynesboro Branch Campus will be located at the confluence of Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian Trail. Beyond serving a broader base of Virginians, this location will also help attract a high rate of visitors from outside the region. By opening our Waynesboro location, VMNH anticipates an additional sixty-five thousand annual visitors to our new location. Before the branch opens, we are also working to establish a presence in the community by attending community and school events.
Action Step: For museums that can afford it, building a branch location can be a powerful way to expand their base, such as the Children’s Museum of Richmond has done by supplementing its downtown location with one in suburban Chesterfield. But for the many that lack the resources to build a second location, it’s possible to create a similar effect at a much lower cost. Institutions can develop a “museums on wheels” program, like the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s Artmobile or the Carnegie Science Center’s Mobile Fab Lab, or send a travelling educator to host museum programs in schools.
While these lessons helped our rural museum become more accessible and grow our audience, they can also be applied to museums in suburban and urban markets. With fewer Americans visiting arts and cultural organizations than before the pandemic, these strategies can serve as important tools to bring visitors back to museums throughout the nation.