The summer holidays are fast approaching in the Northern Hemisphere. Millions of kids around the world are itching to be done with school – and parents and guardians are figuring out how to occupy them. Time for museums to step in.
When most of us think of summer camp, we think canoe trips, campfires, and cabins in the woods. But museums are carving out their own niche in the growing summer camps market. Museum camps come in all shapes and sizes; from half days to overnight sleepovers, two day sessions to two week sagas, and can cater to any age or topic. From Impressionism for five year olds to marine exploration the science of gross stuff, there’s an awesome summer camp idea in almost every museum’s collection.
And summer camps aren’t just for kids – a growing number of museums are offering sleepovers and camp experiences for adults too.
Summer camps can be a significant investment in time and resources, but they can also produce huge benefits. Here are some reasons why camp could be the key to your museum’s future.
They’re a good source of income
In a climate of funding cuts and fierce competition for visitors, museums are looking for new ways to cover their operating costs. Although planning and running camps can be resource heavy, they can also provide a great financial boost during the summer months. The camp market is worth about $18 billion and growing, so setting one up at your museum could definitely give your bottom line a pick-me-up.
The trick is to strike a balance between covering the costs to run the camp (plus a bit extra to make it worthwhile), and keeping fees low enough to stay competitive and accessible to the widest number of families. Remember that your museum isn’t just competing against other museum camps, but all summer holiday and childcare activities in your region.
They can reduce ‘museum anxiety’
I’ve written about museum anxiety before and its power to deter potential visitors, even with the most epic marketing campaigns. Museum anxiety is caused by many factors, but some of the biggest ones are feeling out of place, unwelcome, or unsure of what to do during a visit. These thoughts are often caused by having limited experience visiting museums and galleries. By offering summer camps that reflect the interests and needs of your local community, you can give children the opportunity to get familiar with museums from a young age. In general, camp experiences have been shown to improve emotional intelligence and resilience in young people – and there’s no reason to think museum camps are any different.
When kids become comfortable in museums, they eventually grow up into confident museum-going adults. Which leads me onto my next benefit of running summer camps…
They build long-term relationships with local young people
Full disclosure here: I was a museum summer camp kid. In the late 1990s, I attended the Royal Ontario Museum’s long-standing day camp program several years in a row. I don’t remember many of the activities we did, but seeing behind-the-scenes and getting to feel at home in the ROM had a huge impact on my career choice and lifelong love of museums.
Summer camps are a great strategy for addressing some key audience engagement problems that many museums struggle with. They give kids (and their families) a better chance to form meaningful connections with museums than just one-off visits or school trips. They offer the time and space to get comfortable, develop memories, and feel a sense of ownership that shorter visits just can’t provide.
You might not turn every camper into your next advocate or patron, but there’s a good chance you’ll convert some – not to mention their families and friends.
They’re not just for kids
Already got solid young people and family audiences? Looking to expand your adult programming offer instead? Summer camps could still be the answer.
Nostalgic experiences like adult camps are a growing trend, and with the perfect combo of amazing spaces and audience engagement chops, museums are in prime position to take advantage. Since 2017, the Royal B.C. Museum has offered both day and overnight camps for adults. Even Madison Children’s Museum hasn’t forgotten about the big kids, with an adults only summer camp-themed event complete with inflatable slip-and-slide.
And let’s not leave out our fellow museum professionals – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has been running MuseumCamp professional development retreats for workers in the sector since 2013.
This is the sign you’re looking for
If you’ve been toying with the idea of running a summer camp at your museum, this could be the right moment. Even markets that don’t have a strong tradition of summer camps, such as the UK and Europe, are buying into the trend. Business analysts suggest that demand is growing, and niche summer camps that offer specialized skills are the most successful.
And nobody does specialized and niche better than a museum. No matter what audience you’re looking to engage, chances are summer camp could be your key to success.
Does your museum run a summer camp, or are you a museum camp alum like me? Share your experience with us.
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