Museums: A Long Night to Remember

A New Record of 336,800 Visitors Stopped in at 500 Museums for an Orgy of Paint, Light and Tales of Old

At six o’clock sharp, my friends and I were already waiting in line outside of the Albertina for Vienna’s seventh-annual, Long Night of Museums. Over 500 museums had signed on to keep their doors open from 18:00 to 01:00, all for the price of 12 Euro.

Museum-goers boarding the bus to tanking up on culture in a midnight encounter with art | Photo: Wiener Linien

Being this early definitely helps to avoid the crowds. But then the Long Night of Museums is a crowd event.  Sponsored by the Austrian National Broadcasting System (ORF) but with no other government funding, the Long Night fills the sidewalks and museums of Vienna not only with visitors, that this year would hit a new record of 336,800, but also with the many volunteers helping with the organisation of this very complex event. In Vienna alone, there were around 100 guides, 20 people driving the shuttle buses and many more working for the museums themselves.

“The participants think it’s a good thing but [government]’s not involved”, said Karin Polzhofer, a product marketer at ORF.  Still it’s expensive. So for the last two years a consortium of power companies (VEOe, GF, Wien Energie) has sponsored the project, thus christening it “Kunst in neuem Licht” (Art in a new light). Half of the expenses are covered by the sponsor and the other half by ticket sales. The booklets are a major expense; the project requires 215,000 of them in all, customized for each region. There were also shuttle buses, an expense shared jointly with the Vienna Transit Authority (Wienerlinien).

Inside the Albertina, the ‘queen’ of Viennese museums in our view, we took in a splendid exhibition of the late work of the 20th century genius Pablo Picasso. The assemblage excelled in the use of color and the highly descriptive drawings of the female body.

Security was intensive. Each room had a black-suited guard wearing high-tech headphones. The guards were on high alert and reacted very quickly to the slightest problem. When a little girl dropped a brochure near one of the paintings, the security guard rushed over to pick it up. Courtesy, yes, but also avoiding any risk of a child inadvertently coming too close to the art. We also took in the section of earlier paintings downstairs, mostly landscapes and representational studies from the years before Cubism.

In the meantime, the Albertina had filled up with people, to a point where air was getting sparse. Halfway through the exhibit, I felt drowsy, and thought I might faint. I found a free bench, where I collapsed and eagerly reached for my water bottle. Suddenly one of the guards rushed over; drinking was strictly prohibited. With no air and no water, our visit came swiftly to an end. We made a quick tour around to the end of the exhibit — responding to suppose a stubborn desire to get our money’s worth – and then pushed our way on through the souvenir shop toward the door.

Finally outside, I couldn’t help but wonder if the only thing the museums benefited from this open night was more sales of souvenirs. The museums do not make money from this event. They received a quarter of the price of each ticket sold. The ORF provides each museum with student guides, hired and trained through a company called Casting, as well as brochures and tickets to sell at the door. But they must shoulder their own staff, utility and insurance costs.

So this event is not about money, but about enhancing a good image and bringing new people into the museums. Many of the smaller institutions have more visitors during the Lange Nacht than the entire rest of the year. Visitors often report discovering a museum they never knew existed before.

A refreshing walk in the rain restored our spirits and prepared us for our next stop. The Natural History Museum (Naturhistorische Museum), founded in 1748 by Emperor Francis I, is located right across from the Art History Museum and is one of the biggest museums in Austria.  Of the 8.700 square meters, a visitor travels through the earth’s history. My companion insisted on the insects, where there was 3-D show of them under a microscope, blown up on a big cinema screen. The show disgusted me, as I am phobic about insects, but I liked the 3-D technique. The museum was so large and on so many floors, however, the possibilities of things to see seemed endless, and the building extraordinary, so old, yet so beautiful.

For this night, ORF encouraged the museums to hold special programmes –concerts, workshops and shows – that would usually be beyond the scope of their offerings.   Several held art projects and activities for children, to show through play that museums can be exciting places to spend time. Many children had been given little booklets in which they could collect stamps from each location and for which they might receive a gift or a baton with a flashing star at the end.

Next we made our way over the square – passing several performers below the Maria Theresia statue, playing music and blowing fire into the night sky – and across the outer Ring to the Museumsquarter just behind. Had these artists been hired by the museum, I wondered, or had they just set out in hopes of collecting a little money from the crowds?

”Many museums asked artists to perform,” said ORF’s Polzhofer, “but there were not many outsiders or independent artist on the streets.”

The Long Night received a lot of media attention. Even a television station from Kazakhstan came to do an interview with the directors of the museums, saying they would like to do one in their country. They were not the only ones. Hungary and Slovenia both contacted ORF to get advice about launching a similar project.

“Getting this kind of positive feedback is worth the hard work.” Polzhofer said.

The Long Night of Museums was first held in Berlin, Germany in 1997 but it wasn’t until June 2000 when Petra Huemer led a group at ORF to organize a similar event in Vienna.  The twin ideas of attracting new visitors to museums and adding the visual arts to the city’s cultural night life have both paid off.  My friends and I do not visit museums regularly, but couldn’t wait for this night because of the ease of stopping in for as long or as short as we wished and the adventure of a new way of exploring the city at night. And it seems to appeal to the fancy of all ages, resulting in growing audiences. The 336.800 visitors this year was up from 325.500 visitors last year. The future of Long Night of Museums is now in hands of the new ORF leadership that takes office Jan. 1, 2007.

We ended the Long Night of Museums under the stars on the Museumsquartier, where people gathered together and sang along with Austrian songs playing in headsets rented at the museum. It was a very mellow scene, with people from many countries, languages, races and ages hanging out together, a beautiful sight, a sign of harmony. In a multicultural city like Vienna you sometimes feel the tensions of immigration.

But at that point, on that night, as I looked at crowd around me, I felt at ease. It was a magical end to a magical evening.

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