Paying homage to a cultural phenomenon is paying serious dividends for St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum as well as the destination itself.
The Lightner is heading into what was scheduled to be the final weekend of its “Dressing Downton” exhibition. But the special engagement centered around costumes from the popular PBS show “Downton Abbey” has been extended to Feb. 4 due to the overwhelming reaction of visitors.
It’s the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the museum, and it’s resulted in sales of more than 40,000 admission tickets since opening Oct. 4. To put that in perspective, the museum sold a total of about 82,000 admission tickets in all of 2016.
“It’s been a really, really good experience for us,” said Robert Harper, the museum’s director. “It’s been good for the whole community.”
Harper said one of the reasons the Lightner decided to produce the Downton exhibition was because it was expected to boost local tourism, which is a driver for many St. Augustine-based businesses.
When the city was impacted by a hurricane in September for the second straight year — and the Lightner also dealt with flooding — it became even more important.
“It’s supposed to bring people into the community,” Harper said. “We really needed that boost after the hurricane.”
At the county visitors and convention bureau, CEO/president Richard Goldman said the Downton display has delivered on the hype.
He credited the influx of Downton fans to helping December become a successful month, based on overnight lodging numbers.
“We have been (fielding) lots of calls about Downton, and we have been directing a lot of people to it,” Goldman said. “A lot of people have told us that they came specifically for the event.”
What Goldman says is great about the success of the Downton exhibition is that it exposes a new group of visitors to St. Augustine. He compared it to the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover that brought so many young adults to town to see Mumford &Sons and other acts perform downtown.
While visitors are discovering the destination, many of them are discovering or rediscovering the Lightner itself.
The museum is in part of the building that was originally the Alcazar Hotel, built in 1888 by Henry Flagler.
Several businesses and City Hall are also located in the building. Many county residents walk by the building or through the courtyard without appreciating the museum.
Lightner communications director Jennifer Jordan said the staff has enjoyed interacting with visitors who have come for the Downton exhibition but are impressed with the museum overall. Many of them had never investigated it before the special event.
“We keep seeing all of these locals come in and being wowed,” she said. “There are so many locals who have said, ‘I’ve never even been in here.’”
Even some tourists who are regular visitors to the city might not have tried the museum before.
One group of Downton fans touring the displays Friday was a foursome from Orlando. The ladies, who included Sherry O’ Leary, Debbie Bowers and Brenda Horner, said the museum was new to three out of the four of them, and they came away impressed.
“It’s marvelous,” O’ Leary said of the Downton collection. “It’s definitely worth the trip.”
Jordan said one of the goals of presenting the Downton collection was to draw attention back to the museum itself. And it has seen some improvements in lighting and in the cooling system because of the exhibition.
“Now when people go visit St. Augustine, they’ll say, ‘We have to visit the Lightner,’” Jordan said.
Goldman said the Lightner was already a great representation of St. Augustine in the Gilded Age. All it needed was something like the Downton exhibition to get visitors to take a look.
“Sparked by the Downton exhibit, and with Upstairs/Downstairs at the Alcazar (tour), I think many more people are going to discover it and find out what they’ve been missing for so long,” he said.