When it comes to your visitors’ leisure time, museums and science centers have a lot of competition. If you’re looking to boost attendance, revenue, and community spirit, upgrading your existing programs or adding new ones could be the perfect move.
There are so many great museum programs out there, so how do you know which is the right one for your institution? Logistics plays a large role in this decision. Make sure you know what kinds and sizes of programs your budget, space, and staff are able to support before starting your planning.
Once you’ve considered your logistics, take a look at these seven top museum programming ideas:
- Youth Programs
- Performance Nights
- Lecture Series
- Author Events
- Behind-the-Scenes Exhibit Tours
- Museum Overnights
- Maker Events
Before planning your next museum program, it’s import that you have a quick, comprehensive registration page in place. Learn more about 7 essential features that every registration page needs with Doubleknot’s list.
Now read on to learn how these museum programming ideas can increase revenue, recruit and retain members, and share your organization’s mission in new and exciting ways!
Museum Programming Idea #1. Youth Programs
Museum camps are among the most popular museum programs, and for good reason. Parents love to send their children somewhere that they can learn as they play, and most museums are uniquely positioned to offer a camp experience that not only generates revenue but also helps develop a new generation of devoted supporters.
Camps for young visitors often take place during the summer when children are out of school, but don’t let that limit your programming options.
Holiday camps held during winter and spring breaks are great options for parents looking for fun, educational options outside the house. Many innovative museums are also developing after-school and weekend programs that combine the resources of the museum with community service options for youth. These programs are another great way to support older students.
To ensure that your youth programs of all kinds run smoothly, you’ll need museum-specific software that can support the camp’s operations and registration. Look for these important requirements:
- Capacity management: To ensure your museum staff and parents know when camps are full or about to be full, your museum software should display up-to-date capacity reports and manage your waitlist.
- Age range: If you want to limit the age of program participants or separate your program into age-based levels, your registration process should be able to gather and use that information.
- Custom forms and waivers: Many museum programs require specific information from the outset, like dietary requirements, or a signature on important forms, like legal waivers. Your software solution should let you create these custom forms and mark them as mandatory so parents can’t complete registration without completing them.
- Membership benefits: Offering early registration or special discounts for popular youth programs is a great incentive for your membership program. An integrated museum software solution will automatically identify members and apply the correct discounts and permissions.
- Communication: You need to be able to reach your most updated list of registrants with important information about your programs. Choose museum software that lets you create and schedule emails without having to export a mailing list into another software package.
However you plan your youth programs, you’re sure to strengthen your relationships with your most valuable visiting families by taking good care of their children.
Museum Programming Idea #2. Performance Nights
You already know your museum can handle crowds, so why not use open spaces like your theater or lobby to stage a popular cultural event: a performance night.
Music nights are particularly popular programs, but don’t forget about poetry readings, storytelling nights, or even comedy nights.
To host a great performance night, make sure you’ve considered the following:
- The performers: Who will you invite to perform? Do you already have a relationship with a local performer?
- The logistics: What equipment and furniture do you need? What refreshments will you offer?
- The schedule: How often will you host your performance night? How different will each night be?
- The tickets: How much will tickets cost? How many will you offer? How many tickets will you set aside for members?
- The promotion: How will you make sure that the community at large knows about your performance night?
By opening up your performance nights to the public and holding them regularly, you can start to build a view of your museum as a cultural center for more than the objects on the walls and the educational programs you offer.
It’s not just about new attendees, though. Your members will love perks like a free drinks, discounted admission, or early access — and nonmembers who see these benefits will be encouraged to find out more about your membership program!
Museum Programming Idea #3. Lecture Series
Museums are centers of community and learning, so why not offer great opportunities to share knowledge beyond exhibit signage and guided tours?
Many museums invite experts from universities, companies, and research centers to lecture, and others take the opportunity to showcase their own staff’s expertise.
Planning a lecture series, whether your featured speakers come from within your own walls or without, requires you to consider the following:
- Your museum’s mission and what lecture topics would be interesting to your visitors.
- Attendance numbers from previous similar events.
- Your ability to pay speakers or publicize their work or the work of their institution.
- Corporate sponsors that can help pay for the series.
If you’re planning a lecture series, make sure you have the right museum software to handle communications, registration, and upsell options as you focus on developing content and reaching out to guest lecturers.
To ensure a crowd, publicize your lecture series widely. Invite your own patrons and members, but also reach out to other educational institutions in your area, such as universities and research centers and community centers, whose members would love to attend a talk by someone in their field. Plus, ask any guest lecturers to promote the series throughout their own social networks.
Museum Programming Idea #4. Author Events
Commonly held at bookstores, author events of all kinds can also take place in museums. Museums are the perfect venue for authors to promote books related to your museum’s missions, even if they’re not nonfiction or academic. Children’s book authors, for example, can draw large crowds to children’s museums.
Finding authors isn’t as hard as you might think. Take a look at the books already in your museum gift shop, or a specific author’s or publisher’s website. You’ll be able to find contact information for the publisher, the author, or their agent, all of whom will be very happy to help your museum sell more of their books during an event.
Because an author event comes with some unique specifications, keep these event planning tips in mind:
- Extra copies: Have as many copies of the author’s book on hand as possible.
- Signing: Designate time and space for the author to sign visitors’ books.
- Mobile POS: Invest in a mobile POS system to sell books to attendees on the spot.
Make sure to tag your visiting author or their publisher in any social media posts promoting the event to spread the word about your museum to their fans.
Museum Programming Idea #5. Behind-the-Scenes Exhibit Tours
Even though you might already offer audio, guided, or self-guided tours of your exhibits, you can join in on a recent trend of offering behind-the-scenes tours that appeal to visitors who want more.
Unconventional tours are great for showing a side of your museum that visitors have never seen before, which means they’re likely to tell their friends and family about their great experience.
Think candidly about who you want to open up behind-the-scenes tours to, considering the benefits of each option:
- Public tours that are widely publicized are most likely to bring in lots of revenue since your pool of potential visitors is so large.
- Private tours for parties or corporate team-building feel more exclusive for your visitors, and an exciting team event is a great way to build a long-term relationship with a potential corporate sponsor.
- Members-only tours reward your supporters and increase interest in your membership program overall.
Whoever you invite on your behind-the-scenes tours, museum software will support your registration for regularly scheduled public tours as well as reservations for group visits and private tours. Integrated museum software will also allow members to sign up for members-only tours and make it easy for nonmembers to join the program and buy a tour ticket at the same time.
Museum Programming Idea #6. Museum Overnights
Overnight museum programs — from family, scout group, and young adult programs to professional overnights — are growing in popularity at all kinds of museums around the country. When hosting an overnight, your museum stays open all night long and provides different activities than during regular hours, like special movie screenings or hands-on crafting booths for children.
To host a successful overnight, you’ll need to provide staff to manage activities, answer questions, and enforce rules as well as additional security to ensure safety for visitors and for your exhibits.
Plus, you want the administrative process to be as seamless as possible so you can focus on delivering an excellent and unique experience for your visitors. Here are a few key ways that your museum software can make it easier to manage your overnight programs:
- Built-in capacity management and waitlists. Procrastinators may be tempted to register when they see that spaces are filling fast!
- Automatic member benefits like discounts or a buy-one/get-one offers. Besides rewarding your existing members, you can convert registrants to members if the offer is enticing enough.
- Custom forms. Overnights can require more liability, waiver, and policy agreement forms than other programs, and museum software can make completion of these forms required for checkout.
- Quick check-in. Don’t make your guests stand in a long entrance line, holding their sleeping bags and pillows, impatiently waiting to be checked in. Issue one scannable ticket for each group and assign enough staff to scan tickets and keep the lines moving quickly.
- Mobile sales and donations. You might not want your gift shop to stay open and staffed all night. With a mobile sales solution, you can sell a selection of merchandise (specially curated for the event) and accept donations with an iPad or iPhone and a secure credit card reader.
These programs are popular because they provide a different museum experience than many of your guests will have had before. Since it’s likely their first time with this kind of program, make sure it’s quick and easy to sign in and start having fun.
Museum Programming Idea #7. Maker Events
Who doesn’t love to get their hands a little dirty every now and then? All ages can get excited about getting creative, especially if they’re learning something new in the process.
Hands-on maker events promote creativity and critical thinking and empower your visitors to become creators. And you can supplement your museum’s revenue even given the cost of supplies when you charge for participation.
Museums of all kinds can host maker events with the right materials and planning:
- If you’re a history museum, what types of handmade artifacts in your collection could visitors recreate with simple materials?
- If you’re an art museum, what kind of sculpting, designing, painting, printing, and building materials can you provide for your budding artists?
- If you’re a science center, what common problems can your maker event participants try their hand at solving with basic materials?
Whatever project your visitors are taking on, you’ll need to provide the appropriate forms and waivers as well as plenty of supplies (including smocks and plastic tablecloths for messy activities) so everyone who shows up can participate. You’ll probably also need some reliable volunteers to help you set up, provide guidance, replenish supplies, and clean up. Make sure you take good care of your volunteers; they’re putting in a lot for you to succeed!
No matter which of these programs you decide on, remember to make them all your own by personalizing them to your museum’s mission. You’re opening your doors to patrons who love your museum and want to support it by attending. Give them something to tell their friends about!
Programming is only one part of your overall operations. If you want to learn more to make your museum the best it can be, read through these additional resources:
- Museum Membership: The Ultimate Guide. Your museum programs should be a highlight of your members’ time under your roof. Make sure your membership program stacks up to deliver the best experience you possibly can.
- Museum Software: The Ultimate Guide. You can’t pull off an awesome program without the right tools! Check out our ultimate guide to museum software to make sure you’re going into your planning fully equipped.
- Top Museum Fundraising Event Ideas. If you’re looking for an event to bring in donations in support of a current project, get inspired by our list of the top fundraising events for museums!
- Membership Renewal Letters Guide. Renewal letter help ensure that your members stay in your membership program so that they can enjoy your upcoming programs. Learn about how to write the perfect renewal letter with our expert guide.
Elissa Miller, M.Ed. is Communications Director for Doubleknot and ClearView CRM. As the former development director for a regional nonprofit, she’s passionate about helping nonprofits and youth-serving organizations effectively harness new technologies to streamline operations and support their missions.