Black Creek Pioneer Village, which many who grew up in Toronto will remember from school trips, appears to have changed little over the past few decades. That's probably par for the course for a collection of 19th-century buildings, literally set up to preserve the past. A bearded blacksmith still shows you how to make a small wrought-iron hook. And you can still learn how a loom works from a lady in a bonnet.
But this sleepy little piece of history, as with many small museums and historic sites across Canada and the United States, is on a new mission: to become cool. The reason? The core audience for many such museums is traditionally made up of schoolchildren and retirees. The latter are dying off and not being replaced by a younger cohort.
That's part of the reason why Black Creek – which started slowly modernizing its offerings nine years ago, when it started making and selling historically accurate microbrewed beer – is launching a new series of "nightlife" attractions, including axe-throwing and an occult-themed "escape game." They are aimed at introducing the village to a child-free evening crowd. The beer will be on offer, too.
Black Creek is taking its cues from museums and historical venues across North America which are facing the same challenges.
Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, labelled a "museum visionary" by the Smithsonian Institution, says many museums are seeing their traditional audiences vanish and must attract new ones to stay alive.
Similar institutions across Toronto have also been letting their hair down in recent years, staging historical dress-up parties and the like.
In addition to axe-throwing and an escape game that pits participants against fictional forces of darkness, Black Creek is also offering a series of guided "haunted walks" and something called "archery dodgeball," which involves suiting up in padding and firing foam-tipped arrows at fellow players. All of the new games are being offered by external companies on Black Creek's grounds.
"It's part of making Black Creek a destination for not just your Grade 3 field trip – it's a destination to come for thrilling activities and not necessarily to learn about Confederation," says Geri Smith, the village's supervisor of guest services and its brewery.
The plan is to bring in a new demographic, although she adds that the "soft-launch" of the games for the past few weeks has attracted a wide range of ages, not just people in their 20s. They officially launch next week.
Black Creek, which is run by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, hopes the added visibility and revenue will help it to achieve its long-term goal of financial self-sufficiency, as it seeks to restore and maintain its many delicate historical buildings, some of which are worse for wear.
Ms. Smith says the timing of this move to raise the profile of the village by serving up fun and beer to people without children couldn't be better: The soon-to-open Spadina subway extension to nearby York University means patrons from farther away can more easily take the TTC home.
The escape game, put on by a company called Secret City Adventures that has done a similar event at Casa Loma, features actors in spooky robes and is described this way in a promotional blurb: "Stopping in the village of Black Creek for a night's rest, you and your fellow travellers find yourselves trapped as strange cultists work to awaken an ancient evil force."
Many institutions have started reaching out with nightlife-style initiatives, offering drinks and special events aimed at younger visitors, says Ms. Simon, who took over the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2011 when it was on the verge of closing.
Her museum is now thriving and expanding and has also diversified its offerings and staff to attract more of the local Latino community. She also brought in local "fire artists" associated with the nearby counter-cultural Burning Man event to launch a "festival of fire and digital art" that attracts a large, broad and non-traditional audience.
"Audiences, not just for museums but for art institutions generally, are aging up relative to the general population," Ms. Simon said in an interview. "Whether you are talking about a museum or a symphony or even a jazz club, younger people are not replacing the people who are literally dying out."
But Ms. Simon said it was important to not focus so heavily on partying twentysomethings that the overall mission of the museum gets lost: "I don't want to trade having retirees for having twentysomethings and still be not on the radar or not valued by the majority of our community."
Other Toronto institutions have also been doing similar things in recent years. The Royal Ontario Museum has long had success with its Friday evening nightclub-style events, with DJs and live music.
The City of Toronto, which directly operates 10 historic-site museums – including Fort York, Spadina House and Mackenzie House – has also joined in the fun.
Fort York has also long hosted music festivals. For the past three years, the historic manor Spadina House has held an annual 1920s-themed Gatsby Garden Party, which is a reliable sellout. Participants dress up, drink cocktails, learn dance steps and play croquet.
North York Zion Schoolhouse, near Finch Avenue East and Leslie Street, hosts a "steampunk"-themed party, celebrating the subculture that mixes Victorian-era aesthetics with science fiction.
And Todmorden Mills, a collection of historic buildings in the Don Valley off Pottery Road, just held a Second World War-themed "Fab 40s" party.
There are more such innovations to come, says Larry Ostola, Toronto's director of museums and heritage services. But he sounds a note of caution about launching "escape games" in the city-run museums he oversees: "We're having a look at it. But … we would always try and make sure that we were somehow tying it back to our purpose and intent of why we're in business and how we serve Torontonians."