In 1802, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours founded a gunpowder mill on land known as Hagley. The DuPont Company would later develop such groundbreaking products as neoprene, nylon, Corian, Teflon, Mylar and Tyvek.
Located on the banks of the Brandywine River, Hagley is now a museum with a prized library. Some 70,000 visitors a year come to do research on industry and innovation, attend special events or tour the restored mills, the workers’ community and the du Ponts’ ancestral home and garden.
But like many area museums, Hagley is thinking outside gallery walls. Looking to engage a new generation of patrons, forward-thinking institutions are taking on certain attributes of parks, arts centers, performing venues and community centers.
Credit the graying of the audience. In 2009, a National Endowment for the Arts report on attendance showed that visits to museums, galleries and performing arts institutions have been steadily declining for decades.
When it comes to attracting young people who want experiences instead of static displays, Hagley has an advantage, namely a picturesque 235-acre property with water views.
In summers, the museum offers a Bike & Hike & Brews program with reduced admission from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. A partnership with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which supplies the beer, the evenings have attracted up to 600 people for each event. “It’s a casual, relaxing experience,” says Jessica Eisenbrey, Hagley’s marketing manager. “People are reacting in a positive way.” For summer 2018, Hagley will also sell ice cream from Hockessin-based Woodside Farm Creamery.
Hagley’s periodic Sunday Strolls let visitors wander the property or take a guided tour. The museum plans to up the frequency of the promotion, during which the café is open for breakfast and lunch. This year, the museum will start garden tours with dinner at the café.
Special events have always been a draw. Hagley’s Maker Fest in April is part science fair, part community fair and part artisan fest. From tech enthusiasts to crafters to science clubs, participants come to the event to show what they’ve made and learned.
Tourists typically come from the mid-Atlantic area, Eisenbrey says. She’d like to broaden the reach, and a traveling exhibit to China is a step in that direction.
In March 2018, Hagley and Tsinghua University in Beijing mounted the traveling exhibition “Spirit of Invention: Nineteenth-Century U.S. Patent Models from the Hagley Museum and Library.”
Hagley has the world’s largest private collection of patent models, which were part of the patent application process in the 1800s.
Regardless of whether the invention was a clock or an artificial leg, inventors had to submit a scaled-down model — until, that is, the Patent Office became crowded with models and nixed the requirement.
Only about 60 of Hagley’s nearly 5,000 models are in China. Within the next few years, more of the models will be displayed on the grounds, and by 2020, Hagley will feature patent model exhibits on all three floors of a renovated visitors center.
“We really want them to tell the story of innovation and invention over time,” Eisenbrey says.