While a stormy summer night would seem to make for the perfect setting to explore the macabre Mütter Museum, most wouldn't consider it ideal for hanging around outside in the institution's medicinal garden.
Gray skies, however, didn't stop hundreds from flocking there early this month for a pop-up beer garden. Amid rumbles of thunder and flashes of far-off lighting, a crowd mostly of young professionals sipped on sangria and seasonal brews. Their night at the museum also included admission to the indoor exhibits of skeletons, skulls, and myriad anomalies such as gangrene-covered hands.
"My girlfriend convinced me to come," said Eric Storey, 27, drinking a peach-infused double IPA from Stone Brewing Co. "She loves it here, and it seemed like the perfect time to finally visit with her. Makes sense to come when there's beer here rather than not, right?"
That better-with-beer line of thinking is driving a citywide trend, as Philadelphia's museums harness the power of leisurely drinking to expand their audiences, especially among millennials.
The Mütter's sold-out beer garden event drew 725 people after hours on July 3, roughly double the museum's daytime attendance. The Franklin Institute's monthly Science After Hours series, featuring a cash bar and live music, draws about 2,000.
Other cultural events that mix museum attendance with social drinking include Dinos After Dark at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Summer Nights at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, History After Hours at the Museum of the American Revolution, First Friday! at the Barnes Foundation, and the American Swedish Historical Museum's annual SmörgåsBeer.
This Friday, the Rodin Museum joins the party, with a month-long outdoor garden bar in the sculpture garden. Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 19, visitors can enjoy extended pay-what-you-wish museum hours (until 8 p.m.) as well as beer, wine, and music.
"We have found that when we open the main museum on Wednesday evenings, we draw a younger audience, so our hope is to continue in that vein at the Rodin," says Gail Harrity, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "What better way to spend a hot summer's evening than enjoying a beer alongside Rodin's The Gates of Hell?"
When the Mütter began hosting beer gardens three years ago, its main mission was to increase attendance in the summer, the slowest season. With an audience that skews younger — more than a third of Mütter visitors are 23 to 30 years old — adding beer to its educational offerings seemed like an obvious place to start.
"We have a solid social media presence, too, and the demographic on these platforms is generally younger, so when we announced the beer gardens, everything took off pretty much immediately," says Jill Stahl, manager of lectures and events at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which owns the Mütter. "The number of people who come during the four hours of our beer gardens are about the same number of people who show up during an entire day at the museum."
"There's a very relaxed vibe at these events," Stahl says. "There's no agenda or pressure to listen to a speaker. You enjoy the museum on your own terms while also having the opportunity to share a beverage with your friends."
The price is attractive, too: $12. Like many institutions, the Mütter usually charges less than its daytime ticket price ($18) for admission to after-hours events. "People also have to purchase their own beer," Stahl says, "and we didn't want them to feel like they couldn't do both."
At the Franklin Institute's monthly Science After Hours series, visitors 21 and up explore after the family crowd has gone home, enjoying interactive games and demonstrations.
"The magic seems to be in that people are having fun and learning at the same time," says institute president, Larry Dubinski. "It creates this multifaceted experience you can't get at a bar."
Monthly themes vary — from video games to outer space to "don't try this at home" experiments — and the event regularly sells out. Eighty percent of the audience is between 21 and 40. "You get the nostalgia and the hands-on opportunities of when you were younger," Dubinski says, "but without the thousands of schoolkids running around you."
The nearby Academy of Natural Sciences introduced two series of after-hours events this year.
The monthly Dinos After Dark features pay-what-you-wish admission and pay-as-you-go drinks at a beer garden that sets up outside during the summer and indoors the remainder of the year. Attendance consistently tops 1,000, sometimes hitting 2,000.
Four times a year, the academy also hosts Door 19, a pricier open-bar night ($65 to $85) where the museum picks two behind-the-scenes collections for visitors to explore.
"At Door 19, we're getting young professionals, but also a lot of people in their 40s and 50s," says Carolyn Belardo, director of public relations. "There's food and music, and this deep educational dive that reminds older crowds that we're not just for families, that we can offer them a great experience, too."
Across town in Old City, the monthly Science on Tap series, curated by six museums, takes science education completely outside museum walls — and into a bar. Held on the second Monday of the month at National Mechanics, the free series brings in academic speakers on topics like the physics of baseball and "the social effects of microbes."
The consortium behind Science on Tap includes the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Mütter Museum, along with the American Philosophical Society Museum, the Science History Institute, the Penn Museum, and the Wagner Free Institute of Science.
"I think that finally, a lot of cultural institutions are making peace with that idea that it's OK to relax what it means to go to a museum," says Alexis Pedrick, manager of public programs for the Science History Institute.
Beyond art, science, and history museums, social drinking has also began to infiltrate Philadelphia's theater scene.
"You might get a hint from the name of my company that I really enjoy gin," laughs Juniper Productions' founder and executive producer, Sonya Aronowitz. Last September, Aronowitz created Cocktail Plays, a series of performances for the FringeArts Fringe Festival.
The shows featured four 15-minute plays and took place at Philadelphia Distilling, with the venue's airy, eye-catching bar serving as the backdrop. Audience members were invited to sip on themed cocktails paired to the plays, and hang around afterwards at the distillery's bar. Another round of Cocktail Plays is scheduled for Sept. 17 to 19 at this year's Fringe.
Last year's plays at the distillery were so successful that Aronowitz decided to launch her own company to create other nontraditional theater opportunities around town.
Beyond pairing arts and alcohol, "the Juniper mission is really driven by the desire to expand theater in Philadelphia," Aronowitz says. "How do we make this a more popular type of entertainment? We need to meet people where they are."