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Starting a Museum: Advice from the Trenches

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Today’s guest post is by Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans (SoFAB). SoFAB “celebrates, interprets, investigates, entertains and preserves”—and in this museum, preservation means jam as well as conservation! Because I get so many questions about starting, and funding, future museums, I invited Liz to share her experiences and advice.

I have had the pleasure of being involved in the opening of three museums, the D-Day Museum (now the National World War II Museum), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and, most recently, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The first two museums opened while I was at the University of New Orleans Foundation—they were great on-the-job training in opening a museum. I was fortunate that, as projects of a state university, these museums had the power of the state of Louisiana behind them, as well as large staffs of talented and interested people working on the start-ups.

In 2004, armed with the knowledge I acquired from these two projects, but without the power of the state, I joined with two other New Orleanians to open a food museum. We were not typical “blog and photo” foodies. We were interested in exploring cultural, historical and other aspects of food, drink and eating. I was the one most motivated and able to spend time working on the project. One of my partners was experienced in design and internet, the other in politics and advocacy. None of us was the “angel” investor that so many projects seek.

Although opening this museum proved very different from opening a state-sponsored institution, I found that the basic principles were the same: establish a well-articulated, focused mission; decide whether and what to collect and exhibit; define a target visitorship; establish a point of view; create a budget; create a fundraising plan; identify volunteers and supporters; create a timeline. And identify the leader—although creating a museum cannot be done alone, it cannot be done by committee either. Someone has to be the point person, and willing to carry the load.

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Opening a museum about food presented unique problems, the most important of which was that no one knew what a food museum might look like! There aren’t enough of them to make it easy to explain or to find a parallel reference. So in 2004 we began by mounting exhibits in borrowed space that illustrated the idea of a food museum, while we kept planning and started to raise funds.

We began by concentrating on small gifts, going to restaurants and bars in town and asking for small, $500 donations. There were occasional larger windfalls. Through the work of volunteers we created a logo and a website and began to look as though we existed—though we had no slick marketing materials. With a solicitation packet tweaked for each “ask,” we began to collect checks. Having already received 501(c)(3) status from the IRS gave us the advantage of tax deductibility, and the ability to spotlight those who supported us. Our pot began to grow.

Though we hoped to eventually obtain grants from traditional funders, we also knew that that would not happen until we were actually open. Many funders, such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services, require a museum to be open and operating for two years before they will consider funding you. In the interim, we planned to sustain ourselves by creating a board that would make personal donations, and through the revenue of the gift shop and entrance fees.

We experienced a number of false starts and setbacks, notably the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Finally we realized that if we waited until everything was perfect—enough money, perfect artifacts, and the perfect location —what had at first seemed like a good idea would become an idle promise. So we opened our first small permanent space in June, 2008, with the idea that we would remain stable financially and grow gradually. We wanted our museum to be a gem, but accepted that it might be a small jewel, for now! Now we have been growing for 3 years, and have an annual operating budget of around $250,000 with 4 paid staff (director, business manager/shop manager, editor and operations manager). We have a full-time VISTA volunteer, many serious interns who work full time on various projects, and we bring in guest curators, accountants, and others as needed. Our space is about 14,000 square feet (1,000 SF museum store, 9,000 SF exhibit space, the rest “back of the house”—prep space, offices and storage).

We have been creative in ways that only arose from financial necessity, but perhaps are better than more conventional solutions. We have avoided museum cabinetry in favor of furniture, which is cheaper, and solicited cast-off cabinets from two of the established museums in town. We have found the exact same display supports—such as manikins- in store supply catalogs for much less than in museum supply catalogs. And we have learned that paint can create a harmony when furniture is mismatched and otherwise unrelated. An ethic of thrift permeates the staff: often we call to alert each other to opportunities: “There’s an old refrigerator on the side of the road. Do we want it? I’ll guard it until you get here.”

When we opened the galleries seemed a bit empty. Since then we’ve acquired a 32 foot mid-nineteenth century bar, a collection of 12,500 beer bottles, many large signs, equipment and artifacts—far beyond what we imagined when we first began dreaming. We haven’t yet organized ourselves to have exhibits scheduled out into the future. That is a dream for later. Right now we just work a few months ahead. But we do program a demonstration or tasting every Saturday.

What is my advice to anyone who wants to start a museum? Have a focused mission. Start small. And work hard, smart and with imagination. Although it’s not about the money, it is about the money. Trying to find the balance between opportunism, begging and integrity is the most difficult part of creating a great museum. That applies no matter how big you become.

All you museum founders out there, or staff of new museums—particularly small museums—what is your advice to people intending to start future museums? Please use the comment section below to share your best advice.

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  1. In starting a museum you must decide on what type of museum you want to open. Then plan for the location and the type of collections you will display. Find out where you can obtain your ideal collection and plan for a budget.
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  2. As the founder of the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan… I found the space first then the mission became abundantly clear; Preserve, Protect and Promote the automobiles that were built in Jackson during the twentieth century. From the 1908 Standard Electric Car to the 1954 Kaiser Darrin sports-car and everything in between. In our case 24 cars in all were produced in Jackson. In addition, we have been able to tap into and tell the great stories of those early automotive pioneers that used cutting edge technology and engineering during the fledgling years of the industry.

    Make the venue (in our case, the 14,000 square foot former automobile plant dating back to 1886) a community space open for all sorts of venues.

    Since going public with our vision two years ago (with NO money) we have acquired the building, launched a website, accepted cars for display, booked four upcoming events, hosted numerous “Hardhat & Hot Chocolate” tours and created much good will in the community.

    Recently, a patron of the museum hired a Professional Fundraiser for us for one year. We are currently working on a plan and are in the beginning stages of raising direct dollars from community member as “Founders” of the museum.

    I also made it a point to reach out to the City Manager, Chamber of Commerce and the heads of all the museums in the county. Goodwill has brought us much attention and community partners.

    You can see our story by clicking on the following links…

    You can contact us via our website at…

    1. Hi Ted, How are you. My name is Dominique Bryant. Im currently in the process of start up for Miami Bass Music Museum and would love a little insight on a few things like getting started with little to no funding, expanding and gaining attention in order to get assistance and volunteers.

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