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Our Broken Economic Model

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Every so often I realize I am having the same conversation so frequently, I might as well write it down and share it with everyone.

Today’s conversation is “How Museums Are Like Newspapers and What We Can Learn from That.” I haven’t come to any firm conclusions, yet, but it is an important topic and I would like to rope you into the discussion.

Synopsis: newspapers built a business model that focused on producing one thing (investigative journalism) but trained people to pay for something else (advertising). Then the internet came along and smashed that model by making it cheaper and easier to match buyers and sellers on the web, bypassing the newspaper.

People still value journalism. They happily consume, share and debate the news, but they expect it to be electronic, and free. Some people seemingly don’t even realize news comes from journalists (just like some children don’t know vegetables come from plants, I guess). I read a blithe comment from one article to the effect of “I don’t care if newspapers go away because I get my news from the links people share on Facebook to new stories.” Um…

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Now newspapers are cascading through a series of experiments to find their new economic model—including paid online subscriptions with some free content (the New York Times); aggregating existing content, minimally paid or free bloggers (maybe even college student thesis’s) and online ads (Huffington Post); and hyperlocal niche print publications (The Washington Blade).

How is this like museums? For years, we trained people to pay for a visible set of experiences—exhibits, programs, services, cool buildings. Some of this payment was in the form of earned income, some philanthropic support. But most people don’t realize they were also paying for another, hidden set of activities core to museums’ identity: collecting, preserving, research and education.

The average person on the street doesn’t realize that museum collections are like an iceberg—90% hidden beneath the surface (i.e., in storage). In my experience, when told this, people are usually surprised and often appalled. (“You mean you have all this stuff we don’t get to see? Why?!?”) Not knowing what we have, they certainly don’t realize the expense entailed in tracking, caring for and conserving “all this stuff.” But at least the collections make a certain intuitive sense, once people think about it. Research comes out of left field. I’ve had conversations where people failed to believe that museums were research institutions, even when I cited specific examples. It just doesn’t fit their concept of the world.

And education? You can argue that this part of museums’ work is quite visible, but the fact is it goes unrecognized. AAM’s president, Ford Bell, is continually frustrated when, in his conversations with policy makers, funders, business people and just plain folks, he finds over and over again that museums are not regarded as “educational” institutions.

Why is this a problem? Because the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.

All of this is taking place in an era when supply (of material goods, information, experiences) far exceeds demand. People are surrounded by a plethora of choice, including the ability to consume a huge variety of entertainment online in the comfort of their own homes. Sure they love museums’ virtual content—they expect it, in fact. But we, like newspapers, haven’t figured out how to turn a profit from all the wonderful stuff we put on the web.

So what do we do about it?

First, we turn a threat into an opportunity, and use the internet to burst out of our opaque walls. Making digitized collections accessible in meaningful, compelling ways makes people aware that we have them, even if they aren’t paying to use them. Blogs, videos, augmented reality can all begin to make people aware of what conservation is, why it is needed, what it does for them. A new generation of researchers who blog, tweet, Fbook and Pin can share the process and passion of history, art and science. They can invite people to help with their work through crowdsourced participation and support their work through crowdfunding. And museums, and their representative associations such as AAM, can do a better job of documenting and sharing how the world is better because of the role we play in learning.

Will it be enough? Not by itself…but it’s a start. Weigh in with your thoughts on future economic models for museums below, as well as links to articles that might fuel the conversation.

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  1. This article describes the role of museums and their situation well but doesn't show how all this blogging, tweeting, Facebooking is going to pay the bills.

  2. Dear SayHiThere–You are right, the activities I describe don't solve the problem of income. But they begin to raise awareness of, and appreciation for, the "hidden" activities museums want people to support. This is a necessary first step…

  3. Hello! As someone who used to work at a large newspaper in D.C. and now switched careers to become a museum educator, I have seen first hand the similarities between museums and newspapers. Both can be behemoth institutions rooted in the past but are searching for ways to be innovative and catch up with the latest technology. It takes a while to turn an oil tanker, but it can, will and is being done. The more and more that younger generations fill the empty positions at these two institutions the more agile, mobile and flexible these two industries can be. Here's to the future!

  4. Thank you for pointing out the "elephant in the room"! I find it sad as more museums close and few are asking the big question, "what is the new model for a sustainable museum ?". The current model will work for maybe 10 years, then ? I have been prescribing a "Hub Museum" model, a friend prescribes the health club model, I am sure there are many more models that will be tried, but we need to start trying


    P.S. Who is the author of the article, there is no byline

  5. I am a museum educator and it drives me nuts that people don't necessarily equate museums with education (which, judging by the many field trips I run, seems to be better quality than what students are getting in school). And I live and work in New York, where museums are chartered under the Board of Regents, which oversees all "educational institutions," both public and private. Unfortunately, the Board of Regents doesn't tell teachers or school administrators to use museums as an educational resource, despite the fact that we're governed by the same agency and tend to have the same goals!

    I am a strong proponent of digital collections and accessibility, but it's difficult to persuade the previous generation that digitization is a good idea. Any suggestions?

  6. I suppose that as a society we may value the presence of museums, but they seem to be about preserving the past. Our society is concerned with the present, and popular culture is so fixed on who we are at the moment that to visit the past is often not seen as "sexy" and relevant. Although a trip the museum is experiential, is it enough to grab the visitor who is possessed with himself? I agree a school field trip can often be more content-rich than what is offered in the classroom. How can an experience be made so compelling and personal to inspire adults to adopt a broader view? Raising awareness is a great place start, but then what?

  7. Three questions…Why is it that libraries have books they rarely use, but still the public understands why keeping books is important?

    In a content thirsty medium like the web, why is it we cannot monetize our content?

    Do these new social media change the relationship to the museum or do they change the relationship between our users? How do we advantage that conversation we start with visitors?

  8. Hi Mark! All posts on the blog are by me, Eluzabeth Merritt, unless otherwise noted in the introduction.

  9. Your examples make an excellent case for more transparency in museums' practices and business models. Patronizing our publics by hiding or disguising how museums really operate just comes back to haunt us.

    I think the analogy with newspapers is very apt and a useful metaphor for thinking about reshaping museum practices. I have found Clay Shirky's essay on the future of journalism particularly inspirational in this regard:

    Thanks also for talking about crowd sourcing as an important way of getting more people involved in the mission and work of our institutions. We have articulated the vision for mobile at the Smithsonian as "Recruit the world" to help achieve our mission of the increase and diffusion of knowledge. We aim to use mobile not just to put the Smithsonian in people's pockets via mobile websites, apps, tours etc. on their mobile devices, but more importantly in their hands so they are stakeholders and active participants in the future of the Institution.

  10. Thanks for reminding me about that great article by Shirky, Nancy. Some scary quotes in there, including: "When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc." Ouch.

  11. History museums and newspapers share another very important trait. Both are about place. Partnering whenever possible with them -proving copy – supporting reporters research, and sharing community knowledge with reporters and editors strengthen a papers ability to connect with place. This is important for if people loose the notion that they actually live somewhere, then they are mostly left with self-identifiers based upon what they consume. A socity based upn your soft drink is not a stable nor rich one (unless you manufacture soft drinks.)

  12. This writer has no idea about what newspapers are/were. Investigative journalism was about 10 percent of the newsroom effort. What most experts can't see is that newspapers were read by increasingly conservative audiences while becoming blatantly radical. Internet media showed what newspapers were not covering. The lesson was not lost on the audience. Museums need to learn from this lesson. Not all museum-goers share the staff's radical politics or inability to make critical judgments about bad art.

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