IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Museums are doing well despite economy

As the economic downturn set in, it may have helped that the Smithsonian's admission was free. But elsewhere, attendance largely kept pace with previous years' numbers.
Image: Cincinnati Museum Center
“Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal is very unique,” says Douglass W. McDonald, president and CEO. It’s depth of offerings keeps visitors coming back, he adds.Cincinnati Museum Center
/ Source: Forbes

Attendance at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum rocketed to 7 million in 2008 — an increase of two million since our last report. The home of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, the Apollo 11 command module, and a fleet of other airborne wonders touched down in a tie for first place on the Forbes Traveler’s most-visited museum list.

In fact, the Smithsonian’s overall headcount was up two million compared with the 2006 numbers, for a grand total of 25.2 million visits. The vast and diverse collection of institutions in Washington, D.C., are perennial visitor favorites.

As the economic downturn set in last year, it may have helped that the Smithsonian's admission was free. But elsewhere, attendance largely kept pace with previous years' numbers.

"High gas prices in 2008 may have had some impact, but overall our attendance was a bit higher than we had projected," said Nancy O'Shea, Public Relations Director at Chicago's Field Museum, which welcomed nearly 1.4 million visitors last year.

Douglass McDonald, president and CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center, said his institution "continues to see strong attendance figures, even in difficult economic times. ... In 2008, CMC hosted the highest attended exhibit in the city’s history: 'Bodies ... The Exhibition' brought in 315,000 visitors.” (The Cincinnati Museum Center's total 2008 attendance was more than 1.3 million.)

While special exhibits can act as visitor magnets, sometimes the buildings that house world-class collections can attract more interest than the contents within. “We call it the Bilbao effect,” says Jason Hall, the director of government and media relations for The American Association of Museums, referring to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which “everybody concedes has had an effect in turning around fortunes in that city.”

“More and more,” Hall explains, “museums seem to be hiring an international name architect or architectural firm that promises to do some innovative design for a new building.”

Indeed, our top-25 tally is stocked with renovated facades and star-architect attractions, from the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the renewed MoMA in Manhattan, to Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, designed by I.M. Pei and his partners.

Science museums make a particularly strong showing on the Forbes Traveler 25. Some of these sprawling complexes have the look and feel of theme parks. Like children’s museums, they tend to feature hands-on exhibits geared to kids and their families.

Janet Rice Elman, the Executive Director for the Association of Children's Museums, says she’s seen children’s museum attendance grow over the years, and she adds that many youth-oriented museums have recently shifted their focus to younger children (infant to 8 years old). “Most children’s museum have spaces dedicated to early childhood audiences, and the new trend is to have multiple early-childhood spaces and exhibits,” she explains.

To find out which art, science and history collections drew the highest number of exhibit-gazers, young and old, explore our slideshow of America’s most magnetic museums.

As Jason Hall of the American Association of Museums explains, “Attendance is a deceptively simple measure. One would think museums can and do count who comes through the door. But … it is more complicated than that. There is no consensus about what to include in the count. Some museums include attendance at off-site programs. Some count those who attend fairs and festivals held on their grounds; others do not. Some museums do not even have ‘doors’ (think interpreted grounds with no fences or gates).

“Museums that do not charge admission may have no system of tracking and provide only estimates. A museum may have a method of counting, such as a turnstile, that is precise but inaccurate, as it may count the same five-year old running in and out six times. Still, this provides one more source of information, however approximate, of this important measure of museums’ reach.”

The Smithsonian explains its visitor estimates as follows: “Smithsonian guards use hand clickers to count everyone entering the museums through public entrances during the hours the museums are open. The counts sometimes include staff, as well as visitors who leave the museum and return. A person visiting three Smithsonian museums on any given day will be counted three times. For these reasons, we always refer to the numbers … as 'visits' rather than ‘visitors.’”

We’ve gathered attendance figures from museums for on-site visits. Unless otherwise noted, visitor counts are for 2008 fiscal or calendar years, and rounded to the nearest 10,000.