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Vetting Future Museums

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I read this morning that the National Museum of Language is on the brink of closing the outpost it opened last year in College Park, Maryland. This caught my eye because almost ten years ago their founder asked me to speak to their board about starting a new museum.

That encounter has been much on my mind lately. In my new position as founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, I receive many calls and emails from folks saying “I am going to start a new museum, and since it will be one of the museums of the future…”

Most of these conversations make me want to bang my head against the nearest wall.

Not because I don’t love their ideas. Some are mainstream, some marginal. Many are about museums I would love to visit, if they ever came into being. But really—look at the timing! I am, somewhat to my chagrin, being proven wrong in my contention that museums are the non-profit equivalent of cockroaches, impervious even to nuclear annihilation. Some mainstream, relatively well-established museums are closing or on the brink of closure. The traditional funding sources of museums are under stress. And although the population of the US is growing, the segment that forms the core of museum visitation is stagnant.
You could argue that in a time of social stress and need, society needs nonprofits more than ever: to pick up the slack left by employers or the government dropping their end of the rope; to provide respite and relief from the grim realities of the stock and job markets. But never once have I received a call from someone saying “People in my community have an acute need for [fill in the blank] so I want to found a new museum.” It’s usually “I have been passionate my whole life about [fill in the blank] and I want to share that passion with the world.” Conversations like this led to my recent remark about the “sweetly self-absorbed” nature of museum folk.

I presume many of the readers of this blog work with or in museums. You probably get called at work, or are cornered at cocktail parties, by prospective founders as well. Since even these grim economic times evidently are not enough to dampen people’s enthusiasm for founding a museum, I want to share the list of the questions I raised with the Museum of Language’s board and have used time and again in the ensuing decade—please use and distribute it widely if you find it useful.

  • Is what you want really a museum? Think about who you want to influence, what difference you want to make in the world and then choose the right delivery mechanism. Separate your purpose (e.g. “we want to save a historic house”) from your position (“so we are going to start a museum.”) Sometimes your purpose can best be served by another means (in the case of an historic house, this could be turning it into a bed and breakfast.) Sometimes the things you love (language, or literature) are best experienced and celebrated through other media, like books. Or if you want to be more 21st century, podcasts.
  • Is anyone else already doing what you want to do? If the history of American commerce is about anything, it is about the economy of scale. A bunch of small museums spend a lot more money on administrative costs, and less on mission-delivery, than one big museum. If someone is already successful at serving the mission you love, why not join forces with them? You can use your resources to help them extend their reach or broaden their delivery. Your partner might not even be a museum—they might be a library system, or a performance space—but they could have resources, an existing infrastructure and an audience on which you can build. This approach requires a certain setting aside of ego. There is immense personal satisfaction in being the founder of a new organization. But at what cost to the public interest?
  • Does it require bricks and mortar? Now, more than ever, it is worth considering whether you should try delivering your mission via a website or museum in a virtual world before progressing to bricks and mortar. This allows you to test interest in your concept at a relatively low cost. It may help you decide whether you need to be a physical museum, if so where and what you would offer. Building a constituency can also lay the groundwork for a fund-raising campaign for a “real” museum.
  • Should you believe the experts? Nascent museums seeking public funding often commission “feasibility studies” to prove the viability of their proposals. In my experience, these studies should be filed under “creative writing” rather than “research.” Most of the time when people commission them, they have already made up their minds to go ahead with the project. Rarely, if ever, will they prove you shouldn’t proceed, even if it is true. And above all—don’t believe the attendance projections.
  • What will it cost and where will the money come from? People consistently underestimate what it will cost to run a museum. This has particularly unfortunate consequences since the planning and construction are often paid for by the time this sinks in, and what gets cut is the budget for staff, exhibits and programs. In other words, the people and services actually delivering value to the public. The “typical” income mix for a museum is 24% government funding (usually local or state), 36% philanthropic (individual donations and corporate support), 28% earned (admissions, space rental, memberships etc.) and 12% earnings on investments. While there is a good deal of variation in this mix from museum to museum, it gives you an idea of what is feasible and makes you focus on specific sources. If you are going to rely heavily on philanthropy, who, specifically, is lined up to support you? If earned income, what will you sell, at what price, and have you tested that there is a large enough market willing to pay? Benchmark your plans against the performance of other museums to test what is realistic. AAM’s Museum Financial Information is a good source of crunched numbers from the field, and you can look up the financial statements of individual museums you think are suitable comparisons on Guidestar.

And closing with the question you should really consider first:

  • Who Cares? This is the key to determining whether the museum will sustainable and useful. Of course you love your subject matter, or else you wouldn’t want to start a museum. But a nonprofit museum exists to serve the needs of its audience, not the interests of a single founder or a relatively small founding board. What is it that you are offering that people want? Someone has to pay for what you do. It may be the people who use your services. It may be philanthropists or government entities who are willing to underwrite access so people who can’t pay can benefit from your services. Maybe financially it is enough that you care, if you are fortunate enough to be independently wealthy. But even if you have the money to open a museum regardless of need or desire, will you be happy, after the ribbon cutting, with who does or does not come through the door?

If you find good answers to all these questions, by all means, proceed full speed ahead. And invite me to the opening.

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  1. We sent off our incorporation documents last week, and I'll be sure to invite you to the opening. We started by realizing that there was a large unserved population with a passionate interest in our subject. And if everything you says is correct, we seem to be doing things right – so far. Thanks for the validation!

  2. I agree with most of what you say, but take strong exception to your statement "A bunch of small museums spend a lot more money on administrative costs and less on mission-delivery than one big museum." My experience in government, business, and museums has shown me that large organizations are almost never more efficient at delivering services than small organizations. Their multiple levels of expensive bureaucracy and overhead more than offset the savings from economies of scale.

  3. David,

    Interesting observation. It is good to be challenged on statements like this. Let's see if I can back it up.

    I am basing my comment on data from AAM's financial research, (cited in the blog post) that shows that large museums (those over $11M in operating expenses) spend a median of 27% of their budget on management and general expenses, and 68% on mission delivery, while small museums (with operating expenses under $250,000) spend 59% of their budget on management and general and 37% on mission delivery. Those stats are published in 2009 Museum Financial Information. Having played with the data sets from this survey over the years, I can say with some confidence that this pattern reflects the trend in the middle budget ranges as well. The percent of operating expenses a museum can devote to mission delivery correlates with size of the operating budget.

    Can you help me see a different way to interpret the way these museums are self-reporting their expenses?

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