The Problem with NYC Museums: My Experience at Night at the Museums

Maybe it’s the nerd in me, but I’m always hype when Night at the Museums rolls around. No, I’m not talking about the Ben Stiller movie, although I wouldn’t pass it up if it were showing on tv; this particular Night at the Museums I’m talking about is the one night of the year when museums in Lower Manhattan wave their admission fees and stay keep their doors open to the ‘ungodly’ hour of 8pm.

While I appreciate that Night at the Museums exists at all, the 8pm closing time should be the daily norm rather than a yearly treat. Maybe 8pm is considered late for Granny and Gramps, but at that time the rest of the city is still wide awake and looking for something to do. The typical museum closing time of 4 or 5pm makes museums accessible only to old people and tourists. At that time everyone else in the area is getting ready to clock out of work and find something fun to do. Perhaps they’d go to a museum if it wasn’t already closed… 😒

Fraunces Tavern, Night at the Museum NYC,
Fraunces Tavern

This may be a leap, but I think that museums early closing times did have an effect on the demographics at Night of the Museums this year. From what I observed at the three museums I hit up — the National Museum of the American Indian, Fraunces Tavern, and Federal Hall — the museums’ visitors tended to skew older and whiter. This especially struck me during my guided tour of Fraunces Tavern. Not only was I the only black person on this tour; besides me and one kid who seemed to have been visiting the museum with her grandparents, there was no one else there under the age of 30. Fraunces Tavern is a badass historic bar that’s still functioning! You’d expect this place to have millennials lined up out the door. Could it be that the museum’s not on their radar because of its early closing time, or could it be because the way the museum tells its story isn’t appealing to a younger crowd?

Now I’m not trying to pick on Fraunces Tavern. In fact, out of the three museums I visited on Night of the Museums, I enjoyed my time at Fraunces Tavern the most. 

But.

That was only because of the guided tour.

Alexander Hamilton, Federal Hall, Night at the Museum NYC
Cheesing with a young Alexander Hamilton at Federal Hall.

Having a guide who provided context and explained the significance of things brought the place to life for me. In the half hour I had to myself before the start of the tour I contemplated leaving because at that point the things in the museum were merely objects on shelves. The short descriptions next to the objects didn’t do much to enlighten me. I was just looking at stuff. By just adding a standard tour guide my experience completely changed. It makes me think, if a tour guide can do all that, imagine what adding more interactive elements could do to both attract and engage people at these museums. 

What would museums have to do to be more engaging to you? Personally, I’d want more guides who know how to tell a good story, but that’s what I’m into. Let me know what you’d like to see in the comments below!

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