Smithsonian museums do not charge for admission. So how will extending hours of operation improve their bottom line? It's all about the Benjamins spent in the museum shops and restaurants.
Three of the most popular Smithsonian Institution museums will extend their hours into the evening over the summer months to try to increase revenue for the museum complex, one of several measures announced Monday to tackle the economic slump.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough announced the change for the three most-visited museums on the National Mall, as well as cuts the Smithsonian has made because of declining endowment revenue, sluggish retail sales and weak advertising sales for its magazines.
The National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History will stay open two hours later, until 7:30 p.m. every day through at least Labor Day, while the National Museum of American History will stay open at least an hour later. The museums open at 10 a.m. with free admission and typically close by 5:30 p.m.
"While attendance is up, people aren't spending as much," Clough said. That left revenue from museum stores "about flat" over the first three months of 2009, he said. "In this day and age, about flat is pretty good."
There was an influx of visitors during the presidential inauguration and at the American History museum, which reopened in November after a two-year renovation. Over the first three months of 2009, the Smithsonian counted 5.3 million visitors -- about 800,000 more visitors than the first quarter of 2008, Clough said.
Still, the Smithsonian has not been able to avoid cutting staff and trimming other budget priorities as its endowment and private revenue has shriveled. After topping $1 billion in late 2007, the Smithsonian endowment has declined to about $756 million because of stock market turmoil.
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Smithsonian Enterprises, the moneymaking arm of the federally funded complex, has eliminated 27 jobs, Clough said. That included about 16 layoffs of retail workers and some management positions, a spokeswoman said.
Executives also have eliminated bonuses and frozen hiring for privately funded jobs. A hiring freeze for federally funded jobs was lifted in March, though, after Congress approved a 7 percent increase in government funding for the Smithsonian.
So far, the cuts are not as severe as in other parts of the museum world. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to cut 250 positions by summer and close 15 museum stores across the country.
Clough says the extended hours at some of the world's most visited museums will test whether they can generate more revenue in their stores and restaurants. The evening hours already have proven popular at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
"It's an experiment," he said. "You've got to make sure there's actually a market for it."