Anyone who has been to the museum will recall the long lines snaking around the outer wall of Vatican City, the world's smallest independent country completely surrounded by the city of Rome. Waiting times to enter the Vatican Museum can be as long as two hours or more. Last year, four and half million people endured the wait for the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael rooms, and the other countless treasures inside the museum.
But in an experiment starting this Friday night, July 24, the museum will open for a trial period in the evening from 7pm until 11pm. Only once before has the museum ever opened at night, and that was for the special events during the beatification of Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
Vatican museum director, Antonio Paolucci, in an interview with Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, explains that this is an opportunity for average Romans – those who work during the day – to be able to come and visit. "I don't believe there will be long lines of tourists," he said. "We want to return the Vatican Museum to the citizens, to the Romans here who now at times feel it has been taken over by the tourists, by the foreigners."
Mr. Paolucci says that most tourists usually book their visits well in advance, but during this special night opening, Romans can just show up and try to enter.
Typically, visitors usually start forming lines several hours before the opening each morning. The lines will last most of the day. Only those on vacation or with the whole day off to spend waiting have had an opportunity to visit up.
Most major museums in the world already have experimented with some sort of evening opening, but for years Vatican officials resisted. The Louvre, The British Museum and the renowned Uffizi Museum in Florence already have some form of late opening.
Citing the success of the Uffizi, Paolucci said that during the day, "no Florentine stood in line with the Korean or Japanese tourists to visit the museum…. With the nighttime opening of the Vatican it is my wish the Romans will come, the families."
The entire museum collection will not be open, but the main attractions will be. Visitors can choose between a guided tour or to stroll on their own. Those who want to come book their tickets online. If the evening hours are a success, officials plan to make the open nights a permanent fixture starting next autumn.
Evening openings will also offset the fall in the number of visitors to the museum this year. Paolucci says he expects a 2 percent to 3 percent drop in total visitors because of the global economic crisis. Nearby restaurants in the historic center of Rome are also hoping for business to pick up if the new hours become permanent.