PLYMOUTH — About once a year, the Mayflower II takes a break from its role as a floating history museum and becomes a wedding venue — where couples exchange their vows amid the oak timbers and hemp rigging on the reproduction of the historic ship that landed here in 1620.
Similar changeups occur throughout the region as local museums rent their spaces for functions ranging from weddings and birthday parties to corporate retreats, a practice that many museum officials say helps with both finances and finding an audience for their collections.
“As a nonprofit, we’re always looking at ways to balance our budget and keep our doors open,” said Paula Hutcheson, executive director of the Children’s Museum in North Easton. “People don’t realize that we give away a tremendous amount of free visits to needy or disadvantaged families, or that we discount visits from schools. Admissions don’t cover costs.”
She said about 10 percent — or $48,000 — of the museum’s 2013 income came from private rentals, primarily from 260 birthday parties. The museum, which opened in an old fire station in 1991, has been hosting parties for about 21 years, she said.
The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton also relies on rentals to bolster its finances, according to events coordinator Alicia Tantillo. “It’s pretty vital to the museum,” she said.
A plus for those renting, Tantillo said, is that the museum and its setting on 22 acres of woodland abutting Upper Porter’s Pond provides a beautiful backdrop for photographs. And guests have full access to the museum’s exhibits, she said.
“One thing I’ve noticed is a trend toward alternative weddings,” Tantillo said. “We had a lesbian wedding and a gay wedding [last year], and one of the men in that wedding was a member of the Boston gay choir [Gay Men’s Chorus]. They opened up the piano and were all singing. It was phenomenal.”
One of the more memorable private events at the Blue Hill Observatory Science Center in Milton was a tiny wedding last summer on the flat roof of the three-story observatory tower, which puts people 670 feet above sea level, according to program director Don McCasland.
“I think it was five people, total,” he said. “The couple had been there once before on a tour and thought it would be a cool place to get married. They wanted the view, to be closer to God, and they liked the seclusion of it.”
The three-state view — which includes the skyscrapers of Providence, New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, and Mount Wachusett in Massachusetts — also separately inspired two young men to rent the space to propose to their girlfriends on consecutive Saturdays last year, McCasland said.
“Both of the women said yes, so we have a high success rate of acceptances,” he said, adding that the men each paid $20 for the brief use of the venue.
The observatory also rents its space for small corporate team-building events. “It’s ideal for that. It’s remote and quiet and gets people in a different mindset. We get them up in the tower to enjoy the view, take a little hike around the hill, and then get them together for brain-storming,” McCasland said.
Many of the historic house museums south of Boston rent space to raise money to maintain their buildings.
Virginia Gaffey, function manager for the Daniel Webster Estate in Marshfield, said she’s already booked five weddings and three showers for 2014, with 10 more showers tentatively scheduled. She’s also planning for the annual bus tours that stop for dinner at the 1880 mansion, which replaced Webster’s original country home when it burned down.
“I swear the house loves company,” Gaffey said. “We have at least one function every week. And all the money goes into our bank and helps to maintain the property.”
She said many of the people who hold events at the estate are history buffs, or went to the now-closed Camp Daniel Webster when it was located on the property.
Also in Marshfield, the 1699 Winslow House has been renting out its grounds since the Winslow House Association was formed in 1920 to preserve the historic building, according to board member Kathleen Withers. She said the group built a tearoom and kitchen back then “so they could have weekly teas and turkey dinners and they would use the proceeds to help fund the restoration and upkeep of the house.”
Currently, the grounds are rented for weddings and other events about eight times between May and October, she said. “It definitely helps cover some of the maintenance and programming, but it also offers an opportunity for people to come see the property who maybe wouldn’t come in otherwise,” she added.
The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society frequently rents out its headquarters, as well as the lawn of the King Caesar House on Powder Point and the adjacent Bumpus Park, which juts into Duxbury Bay, according to interim director Erin McGough.
“Certainly the income is helpful, but it’s not the imperative for us,” she said. “It’s a way to reach out to the community, and to let people use these beautiful properties that we hold in trust.”
Plimoth Plantation averages about 50 weddings a year at its living history museum depicting the original Colonial settlement — where the catering options include a menu with 17th-century flavors.
“And it’s not just weddings,” said spokeswoman Sarah MacDonald. Last summer, about 150 FBI Academy members and their families held a reception at the museum. And about 40 school and Scout groups stay overnight to experience early American life – including five students from Calvin College who slept in an authentic 17th-century house earlier this chilly month.
“The remaining students opted to enjoy the more modern, and warmer, accommodations that the museum offers,” she said.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.