Looking for an inexpensive alternative to vacations and movies, members of the University community have found a tougher-on-the-mind, easier-on-the-wallet way to spend their free time: going to a museum.

(Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen)

The Exhibit Museum of Natural History, which is free but suggests a $6 donation per visitor, has witnessed an increase in attendance in the last few months. Senior Exhibit Preparator John Klausmeyer said the economic downtown is a likely cause for this shift.

“I’ve been at the museum nearly 25 years, so I’ve worked here through several recessions, and this has always been the trend,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.

James Steward, director of the University’s Museum of Art, said the psychological pressure of a poor economy also increases attendance at museums.

Steward’s previous institution, the art museum at the University of California at Berkeley, witnessed increased attendance during the recession of the early 1990s, he said.

“Many museums — especially those like us that have no admission fee — experience upturns in attendance during periods of turmoil, including economic challenge,” Steward wrote in an e-mail interview. “In the period after 9/11, for instance, we along with many museums apart from those in New York City saw substantial increases in attendance as visitors sought the solace that art can provide.”

But attendance trends can go both ways, Steward said. Museums that generally have a lot of visitors from far away, like those in New York City, are seeing a downturn in attendance because people are traveling less. Also, he said, many museums have seen drop-offs in the sales from their stores.

Because the University’s art museum has been closed since June 2006, attendance data for the current recession is not available. But Steward said that with the expanded building, new exhibitions, and more accessible open hours, he expects to see a large increase in attendance from before the construction.

“The fact that we’re also free suggests we will be an increasingly attractive option for visitors watching their budgets, as we can be an attractive alternative to going to the multiplex or to amusement parks and other leisure options,” Steward wrote in an e-mail interview.

Lauren Talalay, associate director and curator at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, said she expects attendance to reach all-time highs after the new wing of the building opens in November. She said it is important for exhibits to be free at a public university.

“We’ve never charged anything, and we don’t plan on ever charging anything,” Talalay said.

Amy Majors, who was visiting the Exhibit Museum of Natural History from Texas, said she appreciated that the museum provided her with free entertainment for her two daughters.

Aimee Pelletier, another visitor, comes to the museum about once a year, she said.

While she appreciates that the museum is technically free she called the suggested donation “a little bit high.” She added that despite the economic recession, she gives whatever she can.

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