The cash-carrying tourists used to stream into Duluth’s Glensheen mansion in the first years it opened to visitors, not too long after an heiress and her night nurse were murdered there.
In 1981, nearly 140,000 paying visitors walked through the door to see the elaborate estate and experience its mystique.
But the numbers have dwindled since then, dipping to just under 48,000 in 2013.
“The huge downside to a house museum is that the house isn’t changing,” said Glensheen director Daniel Hartman. “Other museums can rotate their exhibits.”
Relying simply on tour dollars to operate the early 1900s mansion is no longer viable. So the staff at Glensheen is getting creative in its efforts to lure people: Taking down velvet barrier ropes, inviting visitors into once off-limits spaces, even offering non-tour events such as historical talks with beer.
Last week, the Glensheen staff launched a Nook & Crannies tour giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at previously closed areas including the carriage room and the boiler room. They also experimented with allowing people to tour the house without the ropes holding them back, following a less restrictive trail of carpet instead. A nighttime tour guided only with flashlights began last year. And a holiday tour showcased more than 15 decorated trees and period-costumed staff telling the story of a 1912 winter houseguest.
“Part of our strategy is to create new ways to experience Glensheen but also to show the public that Glensheen is this amazing public asset that everyone can enjoy,” Hartman said.
Leaders are opening the mansion’s doors to more uses, too, besides weddings and other private events; Glensheen has hosted “Chester Chats” featuring speakers on various topics and a “Zenith City on Tap” program, pairing locally brewed beer with talks about Duluth history.
Finding new ways to engage visitors is a national trend with house museums, officials said.
Many are focusing less on tourists and more on community, said Bethany Hawkins, program manager for the Tennessee-based American Association for State and Local History.
“They’re hosting yoga, they’re opening their grounds for picnics,” Hawkins said. “They’re becoming more community centers instead of just a place for a guided tour.”
St. Paul’s Alexander Ramsey House, built by Minnesota’s first territorial governor, now offers monthly “History Happy Hour” events, children’s events and after-dark tours. It has even hosted “History Chef” programs featuring Victorian cooking and tasting.
“They’ve helped a lot,” said Rachel Abbott, program associate for the historic sites division of the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the house. Earned revenue at the Ramsey house has risen from 27 percent of the operating budget in 2009 to 66 percent last year, Abbott said.
At Glensheen, they’re also enlisting visitors to help with social media marketing by allowing them to take photographs inside the home and post them. Hartman said: “People have different expectations of their tours than they did 30 years ago.”
The efforts seem to be working: The mansion hosted more than 56,000 touring visitors last fiscal year, up nearly 18 percent from the year before.