Wednesday 17 – Saturday 20 May 2017

Museums at Night

11-14 May 2016 / 27-29 Oct 2016

This case study dates from 2011, when Jo Willis was the Learning and Public Programmes Officer at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (now the London Museum of Water and Steam). We’re republishing it here because the advice is still helpful!

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Why offer family ghost tours? Surely our usual adult ones are enough?

Several years ago, our museum decided to explore the opportunity to open up to a new audience unlikely to cross our doorstep during our normal hours by staging Halloween half-term events. However, rather than concentrate on the usual half-term craft activities, we wanted to try something new.

Various volunteers had attended ghost tours at other sites, and had noticed that virtually all of them were aimed very much at an adult market. We spotted the opportunity for something new – family ghost tours after normal opening hours.

This also allowed us to open at night, without going the whole hog on sleepovers, which would be too much of a drain on our very limited resources.

Throwing aside our serious image

During subsequent years, these tours have morphed from a relatively serious tour of the museum by candlelight and torch – part of which discussed our alleged ghost sightings and encounters – to one with bumps and crashes (provided by our friendly “ghostly” volunteers) more akin to a gentle fright night.

Some may frown on this as not terribly in keeping with museums’ serious message, but we believe that having fun should be part of the museum experience. The tours offer the chance to see the museum in an intriguing new light: families may already know the history of the site, but this presents a different angle.

What do you need to run these events?

1) Volunteers: We would not be able to run these tours without our willing volunteers, who always answer the call. Whoever helps you needs to be relaxed, have a good sense of humour and steady nerves – they could be waiting in their spot for a while before you arrive, which in a historic site often means getting cold.

2) Technical equipment: We bought a microphone and waist-belt speaker combination (you can get them fairly easily from Maplins): this allows you to tell the story and provide the cues without raising your voice and thus spoiling the effect.

3) A script: Develop your script so that you know the cues for “stunts” and can fully brief your helpers – this also means that you can step down and someone else can take on the role with little fuss. A good balance between real history and ghost story usually hits the right level of seriousness and fun.

Health and Safety

First of all, make sure your insurance will cover you for these activities. Then decide on your ideal attendee age range and the maximum number of visitors you can safely handle: given the nature of our industrial site and the fact we only do one tour a night, we sell 15 tickets as our maximum.

This size of group is fairly easy to handle and manoeuvre around. On a practical note, make sure that all participants are instructed to wear flat shoes. Finally, check the batteries in your torches.

Ticketing

We run our tours on a pre-book only basis. This way we can limit the numbers to a safe maximum, take contact details in case of cancellation, provide safety tips and take payment in advance.

A nicely themed ticket is a good idea – these can be customised and dated. We design and print our tickets in-house to keep costs down.

Marketing

Children in torchlight with a pumpkin

Not too scary: young visitors exploring St Neots Museum by torchlight

As these tours are likely to appeal most to local families, promote them through your own website and Culture24’s site, where you can add listings for free. It’s also worth contacting local newspapers and any family magazines that you know would be suitable for your events.

This type of event tends to attract a last minute, “what shall we do in half-term?” audience, so don’t put your marketing out too early or you may face empty evenings.

Final tips on creating the right atmosphere

I don’t want to give too many trade secrets away but it is amazing what you can achieve with steel toe-capped boots and wooden floors, chairs, chains, and a belt-driven workshop.

As much as possible, we refrain from having volunteers jump out at people because we find that the sound effects with no obvious tomfoolery are far more effective at causing families to shudder for than the London Dungeons-style noisy shock frights.

However, be especially careful of over-exuberant helpers: we have ended up with tears before now because at the time we had not discovered the right youngest age limit. As a consequence, we do not allow children younger than eight on the tours and we do explain that this is for families, not adults.

In other words, if you want a serious tour this is not the event for you – we still get requests for séances, which I recently researched and decided against. Don’t be afraid of taking this approach to historic sites more seriously, though – we are currently talking to a major ghost investigation group about the possibility of a more serious and tightly-controlled investigation into the rumours.

These are great ways of introducing your museum or historic site to a new audience who may be cautious about visiting, especially if like us you have to charge for admission, and we often get return visitors as a result.

Jo Willis is now Interpretation & Learning Co-ordinator at Museums Worcestershire.

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Thanks, Jo – for writing this resource and letting us republish it!

If you’d like to write a guest post or share a case study about any aspect of audience development, event planning or marketing in the arts and heritage sector, please email rosie@culture24.org.uk.


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Wednesday 17 – Saturday 20 May 2017