Northeast Ohio museums continue to evolve to welcome visitors back inside
The holidays are often a busy time for museums and cultural attractions with kids out of school and people taking time off from work. For some, museums trips are a seasonal tradition too.
“I'm a sucker for the outdoor lights at our museums and botanical gardens across the state,” said Johnna McEntee, executive director of the Ohio Museums Association.
Beyond the holiday bustle, more people are returning in person to museums across the state this year.
“Many organizations I've talked to are starting to see numbers close to or equal to pre-pandemic levels,” she said.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, nearly half a million visitors showed up this year, which is roughly double 2021 attendance, according to John Goehrke, director of visitor engagement.
“We're still down about 15% from 2019,” he said. “But what I will say is we had some summer weekends and even just some days across the summer that outpaced 2019.”
“Because the Beatles are just such an iconic group that like, crosses generations,” Goehrke said. “Kids and their grandparents can both, like, vibe with the Beatles.”
During the pandemic, the Rock Hall also moved to online, timed ticketing. Those changes have helped the museum more efficiently check-in visitors and better schedule staff, Goehrke said.
“We are now able to use some of those things we did because of COVID for the day-to-day operations,” he said.
Akron Art Museum
At the Akron Art Museum, attendance has improved this year but not quite to pre-pandemic levels. An exhibit of Keith Haring’s pop art due in April 2023 aims to draw more people back to the museum, according to Alex Houser Vukoder, the museum’s director of advancement.
“In a lot of ways that will be like the test,” she said. “Are we back for real?”
In the law few months, the Akron Art Museum restarted more in-person programming. But Houser Vukoder said staff is finding many people’s habits have changed.
“For a lot of our programing, especially our youth and family programing, our regulars have aged out,” she said.
Akron, like many other museums, provided more digital offerings during the pandemic. The museum plans to continue some of those services and is digitalizing its collection for visitors to peruse on the website.
Still, getting visitors to come see art inside the museum is important for the bottom line.
“We really do rely on admission dollars,” Houser Vukoder said. “We rely on rentals, and we rely on gift shop sales.”
While museums across the country are welcoming more people back in person this year, fewer people have been visiting sites multiple times, according to Susie Wilkening, who conducts research for the American Alliance of Museums. While she said some museums have returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels, many are not there yet.
Fewer repeat visitors can have a negative effect on revenue, from parking fees and concessions to membership.
“If a primary reason for being a member is to take advantage of that free admission but they're not going as frequently, then that decreases the need for a membership in that household,” Wilkening said.
Museums are also grappling with how to provide a place of respite for visitors and also address cultural issues, the top two things museum-goers report they want, Wilkening said.
“What's interesting is that those desires are often in conflict, because you have some audiences who want to escape that and other audiences who are seeking it out. And they're trying to coexist in the same space,” she said.
The majority of Americans ultimately want museums to be inclusive, according to Wilkening’s research, and institutions have been focused on becoming more inclusive in a variety of ways.
Cleveland History Center
At the Cleveland History Center in University Circle, the Western Reserve Historical Society has been presenting more exhibits featuring Black history and artists, according to museum director Angie Lowrie.
“I would say they're not new initiatives, but they're initiatives that we've kind of doubled down on,” she said.
Between the Cleveland History Center and WRHS’s Hale Farm and Village location in Bath, attendance in 2022 has been comparable to pre-pandemic levels, Lowrie said.
Even though much of their programming this year focused on serving visitors in person, Lowrie said there are plans to bring back some online programming in 2023.
“One of the things we did see with the virtual was that you can expand your reach,” she said.
The Maltz Museum in Beachwood is also looking to strike a balance between welcoming back visitors in person and staying connected with audiences online, which was a key area of growth and an opportunity for partnerships during the pandemic.
“Right now, our focus is to really bring people back in,” said Dahlia Fisher, director of external relations. “We committed to doing one online program a month, and we'll see how that carries us forward and what kind of audiences we get moving forward into the future.”
While the Maltz Museum continues to work on building back up its in-person visitation, Fisher said they have seen notable community interest in multicultural programming with both exhibits and events.
There currently is a photography exhibit on view about the fight for civil rights in the South during the 1960s, “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.”The Maltz Museum also recently hosted a holiday event for families featuring different religious traditions.
“Multicultural programing is definitely part of where we're going to head,” Fisher said. “It’s aligned with who we are as a museum, you know, rooted in the value of respect for all humanity, expressing our Jewish values by welcoming others into our space, creating a welcoming environment.”