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After Hours: How Museum Lates are Transforming Art Engagement in London

“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally, and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing.”

As of 2022, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has defined the museum with a new and improved perspective. This updated definition includes terms like 'inclusivity', 'accessibility', 'sustainability', and 'ethics' for the first time. I am particularly interested in the concepts of 'inclusivity' and 'accessibility'. Museums today confront both obvious and subtle challenges. They must align their institutional missions with changing demographics, evolving visitor expectations, funding shifts, and rapidly advancing technologies. Ideally, this alignment enhances the visitor experience, creating richer, more memorable visits and fostering museum advocates. However, achieving this balance can be challenging due to conflicting goals and strategies. Decisions on the extent and manner of integrating new technology, identifying core audiences, and determining the best ways to engage them are all part of this complex equation.

Museums are addressing these challenges in various ways. They are reimagining and redesigning their spaces to enhance the understanding of their collections and missions, foster greater interactivity, offer a wider range of activities, and ensure revenue stability. By examining current strategies for visitor engagement and facility evolution, and considering future trends, museums can better navigate an uncertain future. The current focus on in-person, curated experiences is expected to evolve, incorporating digital engagement (both on- and off-site), self-directed entry experiences, and visitor curation. As museums aim to broaden their reach, there will be an increased emphasis on youth-oriented programming.

Although museums are often seen as examples of iconic civic architecture, this perspective is changing. Future museums will be more welcoming and will embrace public, temporary, and flexible spaces in innovative ways. Leaders foresee a shift towards a balanced mix of active and contemplative spaces. Successfully integrating active, public areas without compromising the traditional, quiet museum experience that many visitors value will be crucial for the future success of museums.

Museum Lates, as the name implies, are evening events held once a month or once a week, allowing you to explore exhibitions without the usual daytime crowds. These late-night openings are typically for adults and feature a curated program of music, performances, discussions, and more. Food and drinks are often available on-site, making it an excellent outing for friends or a date. Some audiences actually prefer to visit museums in the evening, when they are less likely to run into large numbers of young families, schools, or tour groups. All these audiences should be welcome in your museum, but they need to be catered to in different ways. If you’re looking to increase your popularity with busy young professionals while maintaining a strong family audience, late openings could be your solution.

stage with large crowd of young attendees in the Royal Academy with party lights, glitterball and costume
Royal Academy Late Event, Max Meichowski

Late openings provide more people the opportunity to visit museums, fostering creative and inclusive gatherings of diverse groups. At the National Portrait Gallery in London, Thursday and Friday late openings feature free drop-in sketching classes, live music, and a bar. Attendees range from art students and retirees passionate about drawing to young professionals seeking a unique night out, tourists, and sometimes even families. The Royal Academy excels in organizing these after-dark art nights. Past events have transformed Burlington Gardens into settings like a turn-of-the-century Vienna salon and an East Village studio. Each Late is inspired by a current exhibition and includes a themed program of talks, workshops, and performances. Tate Lates blend art, music, film, workshops, and talks to explore the work of specific artists or temporary exhibitions. The music lineup, curated by the trendsetting NTS Radio, is deliberately eclectic. Modern art installations, sometimes created specifically for the event, offer immersive experiences. Staff and volunteers host ten-minute art talks, providing personal insights into individual artists or art movements. Contemporary art takes on new dimensions after hours. Friday evenings at the British Museum feature lectures, discussions, debates, film screenings, live theatre, dance, and music. Visitors can join 20-minute tours led by volunteers, and the Great Court is an excellent spot for food.

Billed as the original late-night event, the V&A's Friday Lates celebrate contemporary visual culture and design. These evenings feature food, drink, music, live installations, debates, performances, and film screenings. For over 20 years, the V&A Friday Late program has brought visitors face-to-face with leading and emerging designers and artists, transforming the museum with live performances, installations, films, debates, and hands-on workshops centered around a theme. This program has pushed the notion of 'opening up' traditional cultural spaces beyond simply extending hours. In 2016, the V&A hosted a Friday Late event in collaboration with a magazine and cultural collective run by women of color and non-binary people of colour, highlighting voices and stories often excluded from art spaces. The V&A continues to orchestrate late programs that showcase underrepresented voices, challenge orthodoxies, and keep pace with contemporary design ideas.

London Lates, when the city’s museums and art galleries stay open later, offer extra entertainment, music, temporary installations, workshops, and wine. These events make heritage institutions more accessible and relevant to those who might feel excluded or alienated by their traditional offerings. Museum Lates provide a more social experience than daytime visits. Visitor surveys consistently show that most people attend late events with friends or partners. When visiting with friends or partners rather than family, people tend to view their visit as a social or leisure activity rather than an educational opportunity.

These evening events, focused on fun and social interaction, help visitors lose their inhibitions, which is crucial when trying new art activities. "People who maybe hadn’t thought that they were interested in doing a drawing session would do something… I think people react differently to it after hours, certainly," notes an event organizer. This relaxed atmosphere encourages experimentation and creativity, fostering a sense of community and engagement with art that might not occur during traditional museum hours.

In conclusion, Museum Lates not only broaden the appeal of cultural institutions but also transform the way people interact with art and their engagement with it. By offering diverse and inclusive programs, these events create vibrant, welcoming spaces that invite everyone to participate, learn, and enjoy. As museums continue to innovate with their late-night offerings, they play a crucial role in making art and culture more accessible and enjoyable for all.



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