Visitors to a late-night event at the V&A in London

Why hold late-night events?

Rebecca Atkinson, 14.12.2012
They're expensive and laborious to run, so why hold late-night events?
Holding out-of-hours events in museums is nothing new; museums, galleries and heritage sites have long been popular venues for weddings, private parties and corporate dos.

But in recent years, organisations of all sizes have been keeping the doors open during the evening – and sometimes throughout the night – for regular visitors as well.

In some cases, extended opening hours are just that; an opportunity for people to come and see exhibitions and displays at a time of day when they are not in work.

But increasingly museums are approaching late-night openings in a different way – creating curated events and activities with a decidedly social agenda, designed to attract new audiences and change the perception of the venue.

In an era when museums reducing opening hours due to budget cuts regularly makes headlines, the sector’s appetite for extended evening hours continues to grow. This is largely thanks to festivals such as Museums at Night and Festival of Museums, which have supported museums to hold events, often for the first time.

In London and other cities, larger museums have built up a reputation for regularly holding evening events for visitors. For example, Manchester Art Gallery opens until 9pm every Thursday for “grown-up” evenings of artist talks, live music and a bar. And during the summer, Scarborough Art Gallery held a series of Friday Lates, a programme of tours and activities for the standard entrance fee of £2.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford will launch a new programme of evening events next month. Taking place on the last Friday of every month, Ashmolean LiveFridays will give visitors the opportunity to see the collections and major exhibitions after hours. Interactive events including theatrical performances, creative workshops and talks will be on offer, with drinks in the rooftop dining room and cafe.

Susan McCormack, head of public engagement and curator of LiveFridays, says: “LiveFridays will transform the museum into an informal space where visitors can ‘do’ as well as see."

One established London museums offering late-night events is the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). It keeps its doors open late every Friday night, with a bar and music catering to the 3,000-odd visitors. On the last Friday of every month, this is extended into a free “curated” evening with creative and social activities for 4,000 to 8,000 people.

Although the theme changes from event to event, the formula stays the same: food and drink is always available from the start to set the tone that this is a social occasion; a range of activities are on offer around the museum at different times throughout the event; and the entrance is always used to create a sense of ambience – normally through an art installation.

Damien Whitmore, director of programming at the V&A, says both events are highly social and aimed at young adults keen to explore the museum outside of its normal opening hours.

“The collection is always at the heart of our events – the idea is to bring it alive for young audiences, to inspire creativity and to really get them to engage,” he adds.

The museum’s last event at the end of November, Record, Reframe, Resist, marked the new exhibition Light from the Middle East: New Photography.

As well as new art commissions, film screenings and live music, visitors could take part in a number of workshop activities, from making their own identity badges based on cards used in Palestine to creating fabric samplers using handmade craft. Curator-led tours of the exhibition were also offered during the night.  

For visitors, the appeal is a free evening in a space they might not normally be able to access other than during the busy weekend period. As Whitmore puts it, "the museum becomes a playground" where they can learn and play at the same time.

“It’s a place to socialise and do things with other people,” he adds. “For this generation, it’s an opportunity to do something creative with their hands, something that’s not digital, and that’s very attractive for them.”

For museums, late-night events are an opportunity to change perceptions and make themselves relevant to young people.

“Lates have helped reposition how people think about the V&A,” says Whitmore. “We’re now seen as contemporary and alive and sexy."

The Museum of London’s late-night events programme is also intrinsically linked to audience development. “It’s always about promoting the museum and reaching audiences that don’t normally visit,” says Claire Kirk, the museum’s adult events manager. “Typically that means young adults who are looking for something different to do.”

There's a lot of competition for this audience, but attendance is consistently high. Kirk puts this down to the unique experience museums can offer people. “We’re not a bar or a restaurant – we’re not a normal night out. I think people see events as special; they’re just for adults. And it’s an interesting social backdrop, with activities that people don’t normally get the chance to do.”

The most popular events are ones that relate to the temporary exhibitions programme and specific events such as Valentine ’s Day or Halloween.

“People also really love to dress up,” adds Nicola Kalimeris, press officer at the Museum of London.

Although evaluation shows that the Museum of London’s late-night events are well received, it’s hard to know whether attendees come back to visit the museum during normal opening hours or attend subsequent events as a result of their positive experience.

But Kirk says this doesn’t matter too much. “We hope they come back but even if they don’t, we know we’re on their radar and we’re having some kind of engagement with them.”