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Sharing the Webinar Recording: Creating Sustainable Financial Models for Research Collections

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
A person squats to open a sliding cabinet drawer in collections storage.
Image: Abram Powell © Australian Museum

Last month, Jill Parsons at the Ecological Society of America and Judy Gradwohl of the San Diego Natural History Museum joined me online to explore how museums can build income streams around their collections and win hearts and minds in the process. We profiled projects that have created steady income streams and cultivated fans for museums and their research collections, and shared ways that museums can foster innovation and support staff in the process of generating and testing entrepreneurial ideas. The core content was developed for natural history collections, but the far-ranging conversation may be of interest to museums of all types.

Watch the video or read the transcript below.

(This webinar was made possible with the generous support of The National Science Foundation.)


Presenters:

Jill Parsons, Associate Director of Science Programs Ecological Society of America

Judy Gradwohl, President & CEO, San Diego Natural History Museum

Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

Transcript:

Jill Parsons:

All right, excellent. Good afternoon everyone, depending on what time zone you’re in. Welcome to this webinar on future-proofing natural history collections and Elizabeth, if you want to go on ahead and go to the next slide. I just wanted to start off by thanking all of you for being here today and spending time with us. We also wanted to start by thanking the National Science Foundation. This webinar is going to be talking about the material and content that was presented at a project and a workshop that was funded by the National Science Foundation through the Division of Biological Infrastructure so we wanted to start off by thanking NSF for funding this important work.

Jill Parsons:

Next slide, please. A few instructions as we begin. For everyone who is attending, please mute your audio, that will just make sure that the sound quality is as good as possible for everyone and that everyone can hear the presenters, so thank you all very much. We do encourage you to submit questions. There will be some time at the end of the presentation for our panelists to respond to questions. When you do submit questions, please use the chat function in the webinar and please make sure that you send your question to everyone so that all of our presenters can see your question. And because we have so many people who are in attendance right now, it is very unlikely that we’ll get to everyone’s question but we are in the process … we’ll record everyone’s question and potentially follow up with a blog post or some other kind of response to it, as many of them as we can. So thank you very much.

Jill Parsons:

If you do have any technical difficulties, we do have someone who is available to respond. You can email Anthony at the email address on the screen and what I’m going to do is actually send a chat to everyone so you will have that email address handy if you need it. And just a reminder to please mute yourself if you are attending so everyone can hear, thank you. And next slide, Elizabeth, please.

Jill Parsons:

All right. The workshop and project that began this effort is a collaborative one between the Ecological Society of America, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the American Alliance of Museums. And next slide.

Jill Parsons:

You’re going to get to hear from three people today. My name is Jill Parsons. I’m the Associate Director of Science Programs at the Ecological Society of America and you’ll also get to hear from Elizabeth Merritt from the American Alliance of Museums. I’m just going to interrupt and ask people to mute if possible. I’m hearing a little bit of feedback, so thank you.

Elizabeth M.:

And Jill, what I’m going to do is I’m going to hit mute all and then I’m going to unmute the speakers.

Jill Parsons:

I’ve gone through every menu I can think of.

Jill Parsons:

All right. I believe everyone can hear me now.

Elizabeth M.:

Yes.

Jill Parsons:

Awesome. Our second speaker will be Elizabeth Merritt. She’s at the American Alliance of Museums and she is the Vice President of Strategic Foresight and she’s also the founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums. And then finally, we’re going to hear from Judy Gradwhol, the President of the San Diego Natural History Museum. And next slide.

Jill Parsons:

The workshop that began this effort happened in December 2016 and I want to just go over some of the original goals and objectives of that event. One of the main goals was identifying and quantifying the value of research collections. In addition to that, also starting to link some of that value to public support. Secondly, another objective of that workshop was to examine the impact of current trends on collection sustainability. In addition, folks at that workshop tried to identify new economies to support research collections. Throughout this entire three day event, there was a goal of trying to foster an entrepreneurial approach to sustainability and sustaining these collections.

Jill Parsons:

The workshop itself had about two dozen participants and they represented a diverse array of different types of collections and museums. They also had different types of roles within these museums, so some of them were directors of museums, some were administrators, some were curators, collection managers, educators, and exhibition specialists. And at this point, I’m going to turn it over to Elizabeth Merritt and she’s going to talk more about the material that was presented at that workshop and what we learned.

Elizabeth M.:

Thank you Jill. Is my audio okay?

Jill Parsons:

Yes, I can hear you.

Elizabeth M.:

Great. The reason the American Alliance of Museums was interested in this project is that financial sustainability is one of our three areas of strategic focus and that’s because what we hear from museums is the traditional income streams are being disrupted in so many ways so we know it’s important for us to help improve the ability of museums to make money so they can support their core operations and deliver on their missions and create good jobs and fair wages for their staff.

Elizabeth M.:

So we started by looking at where money actually comes from and you’ll see that for natural history museums, typically the division is about 42% earned and about 28% contributed or donated, maybe almost 10% from investment income and then like 22% from government support which is usually local, state, some federal. What’s disturbing about this is in our 2017 museum board leadership survey, one third of museums reported that they were dipping into their financial reserves in order to meet their financial obligations. That’s pretty disturbing so it suggests that museums are quite regularly experiencing financial distress. We started tackling the question, how can we improve what we already do and how can we build new income streams that are resilient? And ideally this income will be tied to the double bottom line, it will be both profitable and it will advance the mission.

Elizabeth M.:

Because of the focus of this grant from the National Science Foundation, we were specifically examining natural history research collections. This is arguably the hardest nut to crack when it comes to associated income. Most people may be vaguely aware that museums have a lot of art or pottery in storage but most of the people I meet are shocked to learn that a natural history museum might have hundreds of thousands of dead birds. By starting with the hardest case–how do you create financial streams around natural history museums collections– I believe we’ve come up with some conclusions that are applicable to collections of all types.

Elizabeth M.:

To begin to tackle that challenge, I worked with my partners at the Ecological Society of America and the Peabody Museum at Yale and with James Chung of Reach Advisors to map out the ways that museums can connect their resources to income and we identified three motivators for these income streams. One is what you might call transactional, it’s classic capitalism, you find somebody willing to buy what you produce at a price that sustains your ability to do it. Of course, the vast majority of museums can’t do this. They can’t support themselves on transactional funding. In fact, on average for every dollar a museum earns per museum visitor, typically it has to find three dollars from other sources in order to be able to keep its door open or care for collections and conduct research.

Elizabeth M.:

The second motivation is what you might call third party transactional in which somebody pays you to produce a good for somebody else, so they’re not buying it for themselves, they’re buying it for third party. Many forms of foundation philanthropy or government funding falls into this category. For example, you might get a grant to produce an educational program for at-risk youth. And then the last category, which of course museums love, is value-based, in which people are willing to pay you to support your mission as a good in and of itself. Now usually pitches for collections funding are values-based, grounded in the premise that the funder shares our belief that collections are a public good in and of themselves. Some are third party transactional, we might get grants to study questions, to answer practical questions about conservation or epidemiology and that grant might have some funding rolled in for collections care and processing. But we started this workshop with the premise that research collections could build income streams around any of these motivations if we think broadly and creatively about who might value our resources for their own reasons.

Elizabeth M.:

So what we did at the workshop is we created profiles of fictional museums that we assigned to groups of participants, so there was a small private nonprofit with diverse natural history collections, mostly local. One was a university museum with a six million dollar budget and internationally important collections. One was a big national museum in the UK. And we challenged these groups to spend a few hours coming up with proposals for potential new ventures based on the collections and the resources that are built around the collections and we got pitches like an entomology collection that proposed providing consulting services to local farmers based on remote monitoring and data analysis and an astrophysics collection that planned to license digital data to filmmakers and games designers. I thought that one was very promising. And a collection that proposed to provide therapeutic services to older adults, basically volunteerism and engagement as a form of therapy.

Elizabeth M.:

When we assessed those various pitches, we used what’s called the matrix map to see how they fell into a system that rated them by profitability and by mission impact. This is a map that you can access at the web address I provided, nonprofitsustainability.org. Actually they have a number of free resources about how to use this system in your own organization. Basically, the sweet spot that we’re looking for is the upper right hand quadrant, high mission impact and high profitability. A lot of what museums do are in the lower right. Sorry, the upper left, high mission impact and low profitability. These are a lot of the great programs we do that don’t have sufficient funding. There are things that museums get sucked into doing and get addicted to that are in the lower right hand quadrant, that are low mission impact and high profitability. That’s things like maybe, I would argue, Halloween walks or festivals of lights. And then it’s surprising how many museums analyze what they’re doing and find there’re a number of things that are low mission impact and low profitability that actually they should stop doing. For example, fundraisers or galas when you total up the total cost of the staff time to run them, actually turns out they aren’t running a profit.

Elizabeth M.:

What we’re doing as a follow up to the workshop is continuing to share real world examples of museums that have found things that fall somewhere into that upper right hand quadrant that have high mission impact and moderate to high profitability. What we’ve concluded is there are some reasonable goals for doing this kind of work, trying to find income streams built around research collections. Some of those reasonable goals include raising awareness of the fact that we even own research collections and what they’re for. We can’t begin to cultivate public support unless there’s a knowledge that we hold these things.

Elizabeth M.:

Another reasonable goal is cultivating relationships [with people] who might come to care about our mission and the intrinsic good of these collections. Another good is increasing the financial literacy and responsibility of the staff. Often collections staff aren’t trained and equipped to think in financial ways about income streams. And then last of all, it may in fact generate some income to support operations in a modest way or actually generate some capital to start up and try new projects.

Elizabeth M.:

What we concluded was unrealistic is that a research collection is ever going to become self sufficient from earned income. Now, you might all say, “Well that’s obvious,” but we wanted to go into this with an open mind and the consensus was no, you’re not going to do this. But I would argue that even if these programs never become financially self sufficient, those other things we talked about, cultivating relationships that is a really reasonable goal, could lead to an endowment gift that might support a whole position. And also there might be ripple effects of this work that are beneficial in any case. It might control the focus of your work, it might help you understand the long-term costs of amassing this amount of material that need to be processed and stored and building those costs into the institutional budget and other income streams.

Elizabeth M.:

Okay, so here are four ways that we experimented with creating new income streams around research collections. The first is creating derivative products from collections or data, the second is building on existent capacity and services. The third is providing experiences and the fourth is value added around content and stories and I’m going to very quickly run you through each of these models with a real world example of each.

Elizabeth M.:

Okay, derivative products. My first example is from the Field Museum of Natural History and you’ll find I have a couple examples from the Field Museum in this presentation and this example is about alcohol. The Field Museum has relationships with many alcohol producers, vineyards, breweries, and distilleries due to the fact that the museum actually has its own liquor license and purchasing programs. One of their products is Field Gin which was created in partnership with Journeyman Distillery to celebrate the museum’s 125th anniversary and it’s made with 27 botanicals selected from a list over 1,500 botanicals from around the world that were displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Interesting point, the museum itself had its origin in that World’s Fair.

Elizabeth M.:

Another drink project with Journeyman is Field Vodka which is distilled from Illinois-grown bloody butcher corn which is an heirloom variety. But they have other joint projects as well. For example, they took the owners of Off Color Brewing on a behind the scenes tour of the museum’s collections and one of the those owners went on to create a beer based on his interest in South American beers and brewing and based on an analysis of pots discovered in a museum excavation. Another one of the founders was interested in Asian styles of beers and he based his brew on artifacts discovered during museum archeological digs in China. Well, some of the profits from these projects come from direct income in sales, but another of the FMNH brewery partners is Chicago’s Two Brothers Brewery which has developed a number of what they call philanthropic beers to benefit local nonprofits. So, for example, for the Field Museum, they created Cabinet of Curiosities, (I’d buy that), with the proceeds going to the museum’s education programs.

Elizabeth M.:

I really like that these collaborations weren’t just naming opportunities, they were thoughtful explorations of the collections themselves and how they might inform the products so there’s one example of partnering with a commercial firm to create derivative projects based on collections and data.

Elizabeth M.:

The next category I want to look at is building on capacity. This is museums monetizing things that they already do by doing it for income for external clients. Often this is commercial services based on the museum’s core expertise. For example, it could be conservation treatment or archeological assessments or rescue mandated by development regulations or digital services. The good news is, it’s museums getting paid to do things they may want to do anyway. The flip side is these programs can be victims of their own success. Staff in programs like this might feel pressured to give preference to profitable external contracts rather than the museum’s own needs. I know some of the digital labs that have turned up at museums have been so successful that they felt like they were getting more and more of their digital work for external clients and didn’t have enough capacity to really serve the original needs for the museum that caused them to be formed.

Elizabeth M.:

We hear more about one example under this kind of income from Judy Gradwohl later in the webinar so I’m going to go ahead and talk about the next source of income we identified which is providing experiences. This is also under the heading of making money from things you want to do anyway. It includes, for example, running field schools or research expeditions on a pay-to-play basis. I think there’s a real potential for higher income from this category because we’re living in an experience economy. Since 1987, the share of consumer spending on live experiences and events relative to total US consumer spending increased 70%. The immersive entertainment industry is valued at over 4.5 billion dollars and that’s not even counting theme parks. In real life location based experiences are projected to become a 12 billion dollar industry by 2023 and museums can provide authentic, meaningful experiences. People want to contribute to research, they want to feel like their experience is yielding something of enduring value so why shouldn’t museums capture some of the income from this market? And as a legitimate educational experiences, some museums are offering academic credit for this kind of work as well.

Elizabeth M.:

Now most of the museums I’ve talked to that run these kinds of schools and expeditions actually have low profitability. They’re covering costs or modestly over, but I wonder if it’s because they’re undercharging compared to what the market will bear so I’d like to hear from some of you if you run programs like this to hear more about your economics.

Elizabeth M.:

Then the last form of monetizing collections I want to talk about isn’t as well established. It’s using content and expertise to create what is in effect a media channel. I’m going to start with an example that caught my attention that’s actually from a sports museum but it really demonstrates the potential for this format. The National Baseball Hall of Fame partnered with a firm called Teamworks Media to launch a lifestyle media company called La Vida Baseball in 2017 and it offers video, articles, social media content designed around the interest of the Latino community about baseball and it reaches more than 10 million US Latino baseball fans every month. The business model’s based on reaching an underserved niche market and it has income from advertising, from content licensing, syndication, from events and e-commerce. It’s secured partnerships with major league baseball and tops and 47 and in addition to generating earned income, here’s one of those spin off effects, the channel connects the Hall of Fame with a new generation of potential donors.

Elizabeth M.:

Now, wanting to find a [natural history] museum example and sure enough, one example we found and that was prominently featured at the workshop is again from the Field Museum of Natural History, the brain scoop. In 2013, the Field Museum hire Emily Graslie as their chief curiosity correspondent and at the same time, they acquired a popular YouTube channel she had already started called the brain scoop. She started it when she was a volunteer at the University of Montana Zoological Museum and the channel explores the behind the scenes workings of natural history museums in general and the Field Museum’s collections and research in particular. It’s been named one of New Media Rockstar’s top 100 channels. It has over a half million subscribers, the videos have received almost 29 million views. With that kind of reach, you can try and build an income stream around it.

Elizabeth M.:

So in fact, they tested an income model based on producing content for other organizations and they have produced videos on contract for the National Museum of Natural History and they received grant support for specific content from several private funders, including the National Science Foundation who funded their work with the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. And now based on the popularity and reach of The Brain Scoop, PBS and WTTW Chicago have contracted with the Field Museum for Graslie to produce and host pre-historic road trip which is a three hour series on paleontology in the Northern Great Plains that will air this coming summer.

Elizabeth M.:

Now, here’s another example of spin off effects, building on the fan base of The Brain Scoop video channel, in 2016 the Field Museum Of Natural History ran a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $155,000 via the Indiegogo platform to build a new hyena diorama in the museum’s asian [sic] hall of mammals. So there you’re taking one form of distribution which is a fan base built through the video series and inviting them to become donors.

Elizabeth M.:

Being a futurist, I always have to think where could this go next so I wanted to throw out one idea that actually hasn’t become reality yet but I think it could be. We’re seeing a rising desire on the part of foundations and ultra high worth individual donors to have a measurable impact on the world and one of the things they’re doing to pursue that goal is to create what they call pooled philanthropic funds targeting specific causes. So for example, you have the End Fund which is trying to cure neglected tropical diseases, you have the Freedom Fund combating slavery around the world, you have the Blue Meridian Group which is fighting poverty. Through these funds, philanthropists hope to consolidate enough money to make change on a global scale and the Bridgespan Group has estimated that when such aggregated funds become a common asset class, it could spur another five billion dollars in annual giving.

Elizabeth M.:

Here’s my question, in the future could museums present a case that would significantly increase giving by ultra wealthy donors? To do that, we’d have to identify measurable goal for the impact of our work. What’s the museum equivalent of ending homelessness or eradicating polio or ending poverty? I think natural history museums have a fair chance at being the segment of the field that comes up with that cause because I think it could be something like making a measurable contribution to preserving biodiversity or to combating climate change.

Elizabeth M.:

At this point, I wanted to invite our other co-presenter, Judy Gradwohl, to jump in and tell us a little bit more about how she has created at her organization, the San Diego Natural History Museum, a culture in which staff feel welcome to have ideas like this and to test them out because of course, it’s one thing to have an idea and another thing to nurture it to the point where you can actually see if it worked and implement it. So Judy, I have unmuted you, at least I’m trying to unmute you.

Judy Gradwohl:

I just unmuted myself. Can everybody hear me?

Elizabeth M.:

I can hear you. You sound good.

Judy Gradwohl:

I’m going to go ahead. First of all, thank you very much for inviting us to participate in this webinar. It’s an honor to be singled out for the work that we’re doing here and I also have to say, I have been at the museum for three and a half years and I inherited a situation of a fairly entrepreneurial culture to begin with. We have nearly 40 years of experience doing paleontological mitigation and more recently, but also a growing business in biological consulting so we’re aided both by an entrepreneurial culture in the science department and the California Environmental Quality Act which requires this level of mitigation and monitoring of endangered species.

Judy Gradwohl:

I’m also, I just learned, joined by many colleagues here at the museum so I hope they will pop up on the chat if I’m misspeaking at all. Let’s move onto the next slide. I wanted to start by showing that our income streams are fairly different from many other museums. In the upper right is admissions, the lower tan … these are horrible colors, but the lower tan piece is our contract income which is mostly the paleontological mitigation and the biological consulting services and then contributions in the kelly green there. A huge amount of our income comes from these contract services and it covers most of the expenses of the science departments. As anyone who works in museums knows, there’s tremendous additional expenses in terms of just keeping the building going and so they cover a very large chunk, the lion’s share of the cost of the science departments so in that sense, that’s a success. It’s also a huge amount of work every year and the paleontological mitigation is as more and more areas of San Diego become developed, we’re having to look farther afield to keep the workload in place.

Judy Gradwohl:

Next slide shows our collections and I wanted to say that our strategy says that we lead with our science so our collections are and our research are the basis of what we do. We all believe very firmly that this is one of the major values we bring to the world is our collections and our research over the years. We are 145 years old and so we are the keepers of the ecological record in this region which stretches from Point Conception south, which is near Santa Barbara south, to the tip of Baja. This part of the California floristic region which, if anybody follows biodiversity hotspots, it’s one of the thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world so not only are we keepers of this ecological record, we are sitting in a very important place in terms of biological diversity of the planet and the hotspots are defined based on how much habitat has been lost and how many endemic species there are and so we have the record for a lot of places that don’t exist anymore.

Judy Gradwohl:

But the collections, this is by way of saying the collections are extremely important. And I also wanted to point out paleontology which is the fourth one down, about two thirds of our specimens in paleontology come in through the mitigation efforts, so a scraper is scraping by, we have monitors there and if they see something that looks like a specimen, the scraper moves off and they take it out in a field cast and take it back into the lab to be cleaned up. But not only does it bring in income, but it keeps all of these specimens out of landfill and some incredibly important finds have been discovered through this paleontological mitigation which also supports the museum.

Judy Gradwohl:

I think the reason the next slide, I was invited to participate was for this Evolutionary Venture Fund which started about three years ago and if you want more information about it, there’s actually a how-to article about how we put it together and how it is working for us in the AAM magazine issue May-June 2019 pages 23 to 25. And it started with a desire to create a more risk tolerant atmosphere in the museum itself and to unleash the rest of the entrepreneurial energy in the museum and it is entirely funded by outside funds and I always like to say it’s easier to take risks when you’re not risking your bottom line and it’s administered by staff which is something we felt was incredibly important as we set it up, that this is staff-generated ideas and staff are doing the first cut of evaluations and then we have a committee that includes some senior management and executive management and some outside people and we actually have “pitch fests” the same way you would if you were getting venture funding in biotech which is big in our area.

Judy Gradwohl:

And so we have done three rounds. We’re about to do a fourth and we have funded everything from operations – projects like drinking fountains that are bottle refilling stations to this botanically-themed escape room which is listed on this slide. Our tiniest project was a small grant to create an art cart where it just rolls out into public space and people can draw. The projects have ranged from probably $1,200 to maybe $30 to $40 thousand dollars and the idea was to have them all be high mission. The initial idea was not how can we make money but how can we further the mission and that’s why we named it the Evolutionary Venture Fund. The projects are supposed to move us ahead in an evolutionary fashion, allow us to take some leaps that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

Judy Gradwohl:

As it worked out, some of them have also been financial successes. The escape room basically supports itself. It does require a lot of staffing and if anyone’s been to an escape room, it’s a very small group so there’s no way you’re going to run a lot of people through this one hour experience during the day or night and it requires staffing so it’s probably more mission than financial return on that one. But the thing that’s pictured on this slide is our rooftop area that we invested a small amount of funds in fixing up. Anybody else who runs a museum knows that you live close to the edge in a nonprofit and so we didn’t even have the funds to buy the furniture which people are using and to repaint in order to open this rooftop but Elizabeth mentioned earlier the importance of a liquor license, this is how we make our money up here on the rooftop is through alcohol sales. We have a essentially restaurant and bar that we’re going to be opening one night a week in the summer, we keep the museum open but we also use it for events and rentals and it has been a very popular destination.

Judy Gradwohl:

We have also funded some science-related pieces and I’m going to skip to the breeding habitat for endangered frogs because that relates to the impact philanthropy … this is a wonderful project looking at red-legged frogs which have been extirpated from southern California but there are populations in northern Baja California and so we funded money for bulldozers to dig ponds and if you dig a pond, they will come and they will breed and the small amount of investment that we made in both digging ponds and some genetic work–$21,000–has been matched by donations and everyone’s very excited about this particular project so once again, it sort of jump started philanthropy.

Judy Gradwohl:

But the next slide is probably the one that’s most relevant to people who have collections and this a botanical imaging station. It’s not a scanner as you can see. It allows our staff and our volunteers to put herbarium sheets in face up. It takes about two minutes to create several different resolutions of images and you can see, this is one of our staffer people, she is also bar coding and processing this particular specimen. But the interesting thing about this was we invested a little less than $7,000 because we wanted to digitize a collection that we had from neighboring Imperial County but once we had this scanner in place, this visual imaging station available, we received contracts from a couple of small herbariums that were being held in military property because they didn’t want to have possession of the specimens but they wanted to keep digital images so they basically paid us to process their collections which we then accessioned into our collections and because we were able to use volunteers, it more than covered the cost and so the initial investment has been made back many, many times over.

Judy Gradwohl:

I believe that is the end of my slides.

Elizabeth M.:

Well this is a good place to segue to some of the discussion and question and answer. We’re very interested to hear what you said about the model of the Army paying you to create the digital images of material they then reposited with you. Michael Wall asked a question about the unfunded mandate of natural history museums being expected to serve as voucher repositories and it seems like here’s a situation where you, I’m not saying these were vouchers, but you built a situation in which essentially the collections were put in your care but they came with their endowment through … well, meaning a dowry…they come with financial support attached to the creation of visual images.

Judy Gradwohl:

Well, Michael is our chief scientist so he can speak to this

Elizabeth M.:

Hey Michael!

Judy Gradwohl:

But they didn’t come with any funding. They just came with the specimens we were paid to digitize them.

Elizabeth M.:

Yeah, so you essentially built an income stream around accepting them that generated the income that funds their care. I think it’s interesting because this question, Michael, connects to a broader one I was looking at this year as I wrote the next edition of TrendsWatch which is about financial sustainability, which is the question of how often do nonprofits in general and museums in particular back themselves into a corner because we give things away for free and then train people to expect that the price point is free and then they get indignant when they’re asked to pay for it and sometimes it seems to be free because somebody has funded us to do it, that goes back to this third party capitalism where a funder might say, “I want to fund you to do this,” and then you’re going to turn around and give the service or the product away for quote, free to the people using it. But if we’ve trained people that we will accept material for free, how do we then try to attach a price tag to it?

Elizabeth M.:

And it’s hard because there is a moral obligation to save some of this stuff but on the other hand, unless we start creating a norm in which people should be paying us to reposit it, that that’s part of what they build into their economic model when they write a grant or plan an expedition, we’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Jill Parsons:

Elizabeth, this is Jill. There’s been an additional question asking to define the term voucher repository. I was wondering if you wanted to take that one on?

Elizabeth M.:

Oh, I think I should leave it to Judy since she’s actually working in a museum that that does this. I could, but –

Judy Gradwohl:

Okay, I just unmuted. We call our specimens vouchers because they vouch for the existence of that particular individual at that point in time and always point out that specimens with no data associated with them are worthless to us so it’s the specimen and the data that vouch for that specific individual. But vouchers also are more importantly when a new species is being described, it is the type specimen or the voucher and those are safeguarded, I know when I worked at Smithsonian, they were under lock and key. It’s one of the reasons why the fires in Brazil were so tragic because they lost many of the type specimens and without those, it’s very difficult to go back and understand why that was considered a species, how its genetics or its taxonomy relates to other species. Anyone who works in this field knows that things are constantly being reclassified and it’s necessary to go back and look at type specimens or the voucher specimens in order to do that research so those are … we keep those in the public trust forever and as Michael points out, no one … very few people understand or care about the importance of that, but that is extremely important and we keep the air conditioning running at the correct temperature in the herbarium so that we can preserve those specimens even if it’s causing us financial problems elsewhere.

Jill Parsons:

And Judy … oh, sorry.

Elizabeth M.:

I was just trying to pitch in my [inaudible 00:42:18] Patrick Larken, hello Patrick, comments that California’s high amount of environmental and other regulations seem to have created opportunities for your museum that other states may not have. Do you have thoughts on how your consulting efforts may or may not translate to other parts of the country?

Judy Gradwohl:

Michael, do you want to unmute and take this one if you’re still on? I believe it is … we are –

Michael:

Am I allowed to unmute?

Judy Gradwohl:

Yeah.

Elizabeth M.:

Yes.

Michael:

Okay. Yeah, certainly California has very stringent laws regarding this relative to a lot of other areas of the country. Interesting paleontological part that really a lot of this entrepreneurial spirit started under is it’s only enforce by municipalities so there are municipalities within the state that don’t enforce it, and we’re fortunate that San Diego happens to be a municipality that does enforce this. But paleo’s its own special thing but there’s … biological consulting is a huge piece of pie across all states and I think where we’ve really found our niche within the biological consulting realm is through our taxonomic expertise and having people particularly working with conservation of endangered species, listed species, state listed species, really making sure that we’ve got the staff on hand to be able to be specialists within that area and people come to us. Typically, we act as subcontractors for much larger projects. It might have to do with wetland delineation and all this sort of stuff, but we’re in there for specific expertise so it’s a little bit apples and oranges but I think within the realm of biological consulting, that’s probably the most applicable across a lot of regions.

Jill Parsons:

So I see another question in the chatbox that also relates to consulting and I don’t know if Judy or maybe Michael wants to take this one as well, but it’s asking about consulting and does it take away from a curator’s time at the museum? How do curators consult and then also get paid to do so without there being a conflict of interest?

Judy Gradwohl:

Michael, I’m going to let you jump in because you’re the one who has to juggle this.

Michael:

Yeah, sure. Absolutely it’s a problem, right? Clearly it takes away from research time because time’s a limited resource but the conflict of interest part of it, they’re not consulting as individuals. We’re having organizations contracting with the museum and the curators and the researchers and the staff are working through the museum to do that consultancy so there’s no conflict there and theoretically people aren’t moonlighting outside the museum’s efforts. And then how do you find that balance? We just try really hard to make sure that the projects that we are working on from a consultancy perspective fall into that high mission quadrant of the graph that Elizabeth showed earlier and really try to not do the things that fall in the bottom left hand quadrant that don’t serve the mission, don’t serve the collections, don’t serve research. We’re not going to do that.

Michael:

And then another thing that we have to think about is our role in our identity within the conservation … as a conservation-oriented organization, we’re not going to take contracts that are looking to pave over a wetland of some kind of so we do have to be really choosy about it.

Elizabeth M.:

Thank you, Michael. There’s a very interesting discussion going on in the chat about escape rooms, which I’ve been studying because so many museums have really cool mission and subject related escape rooms, even if they’re not directly related to research collections that I know of. Most of the time. But several people have commented … Judy, you said earlier that yours basically breaks even but some people are saying it depends because escape rooms that are marketed towards companies as team building opportunities may make more money. I think that’s a really pointed comment about when you’re trying to hone income streams like this to maximize the profit once you’re happy with whatever their consistency with your mission is. That you look [at] who has the money. There’s the old joke about why do people rob banks? Because that’s where the money is and the fact is companies have generally higher price points they’re willing to pay than individuals.

Elizabeth M.:

You may be familiar with the museum tour company called Museum Hack that does very irreverent high energy tours of museum collections and you might have a museum where the public is complaining about paying a $25 entrance fee but they’re willing to pay Museum Hack $100 to go on one of their tours. I was interested to learn from a podcast episode in which they dug into their business model, the vast majority of their income’s coming from team building exercises with corporations, the actual public tours are a very small slice of their profitability. So you may be doing something that is modestly profitable with one group that could have a higher profit margin with another.

Judy Gradwohl:

And if I can just jump in here, as I mentioned, our ideal number in the escape room at any one time is six people and so teams are often larger than that. We do have corporate team building rentals of the escape room, it’s just the way ours … ours is not set up to run large numbers of people through and so if you just look at the number of hours in the day that people are available to do it and you’re running through six through per hour … we can run it with two people as well. I think because it was set up more with mission and experiment in mind and we weren’t looking at how to make it more of a mill. It probably is possible. The other thing to know about is there is a level of fatigue after people have done it once, they will not do it again because it’s the same problem so you need to have the ability to change it over and we’re looking at that now about whether we want to create a new one.

Judy Gradwohl:

But what we’re finding is it’s also fabulous image advertising for the museum. It’s a very cool thing for us to do and it’s helping us become less of a dusty old natural history museum so sometimes the mission is education, sometimes it’s image, sometimes it’s earning money. Right now, it’s a good sweet spot for us but we’re actively wrestling with all the advantages and disadvantages of having it right now.

Elizabeth M.:

I think it’s a good point of the cost of keeping something like that fresh. This is a good point to emphasize the benefits of finding partner organizations that can help with this work because somehow it meshes what they want to do. I was just reading recently about the … let’s see, which museum is it? The Niagara Military Museum that worked with Brock University. They got their students from the dramatic arts and interactive arts and science programs to come design their escape rooms and they have a number of different programs they run there for escape rooms and that’s part of the student’s design projects so it serves the university’s desire to find meaningful and interesting projects for the students to take on and the museum gets periodic refresh and the intellectual and design expertise to come up with fun, interactive experiences.

Elizabeth M.:

So somebody is saying, “It’s interesting that so many natural history museums have the reputation of being for kids but all of these ideas seem to be for a more adult audience.”

Judy Gradwohl:

I’ll just quickly point out that when we look at visitor surveys, we do have a large proportion is nearly half of our audience comes without kids so I think that’s the part that a lot of museums overlook is that there are quite a few adults and adults are interested in learning and in natural history and so that was part of our discussions in setting this stuff up.

Elizabeth M.:

Does anybody else want to lob any questions at our presenters?

Jill Parsons:

This is Jill. We did receive a couple of questions in advance of the webinar and this discussion about who comes to museums, who is thought of as the typical audience relates to one of them and one of the questions was, “What is the typical model for brand development for natural history museums and how do collections factor into that model?” I think Elizabeth and Judy, you’ve touched on this a little bit but I just wanted to check in to see if there’s anything else you wanted to say along those lines.

Judy Gradwohl:

I can pull a little on my Smithsonian experience, where I was before this, and man, we licensed plush animals. I don’t know if they’re still doing that but based on collections and specimens, so if people are making new discoveries, possibly you could license things related to that. Once again, you just have to look at the margins and I think one of the really important lessons we learned in the Evolutionary Venture Fund is it’s not enough just to build it, you need to build in marketing and so your expenses go way up with a lot of things. You could have a great idea but if you can’t market it properly or manufacture it properly or deal with the inventory … it’s not our primary business and so we don’t always know all the steps that are involved in doing that.

Elizabeth M.:

So I’d like to tackle the question that Erin Richardson just lobbed, she comments that outside of the Venture Fund and pooled philanthropic funds many of these ideas seem to be Band-aids rather than future-proofing. These are some of the most expensive collections to care for in the long term, anything out there with significant financial impacts. This is where I’d like to make my pitch that the fundamental financial model for research collections is that they are a shared public good and the financial model for supporting shared public good is government funding. Unfortunately, we’re living in a present where I don’t see any credible short term path to a future in which we get significantly more government funding for collections in the US. I think that what a lot of these projects do go back to the ripple effects I mentioned. One of the biggest barriers to building public support for bearing the costs of research collections is people don’t know we have them, they don’t know what they are and they don’t know what good they do.

Elizabeth M.:

I think projects like this multiplied by all of the different things that natural history museums do and the number of natural history museums in the country have the potential to educate significantly larger numbers of people about the fact that this stuff is here, it’s important and it does interesting things. So for example, the Field Museum got phenomenal press out of the Field Museum gin and to me what really thrilled me wasn’t the alcohol itself, but that’s pretty cool, there were major publications talking about their botanical collections and how they were formed and what was in them and the significance. So I think that to the extent that we have the possibility in the future of building more robust public support for government funding of bearing the costs of these public goods, it’s through the multiplier effect of all these projects that help win the hearts and minds of people who come to know what we’ve got and understand their value.

Elizabeth M.:

Sorry, I didn’t mean to drop a mic there.

Jill Parsons:

We might have time for one more question. There’s another one about consulting, asking about how the fees for consulting compare to what private sector consultants are paid. Do curatorial staff prepare the conflating contracts, and if so, how are they trained to do so?

Judy Gradwohl:

Michael, you want to take that?

Michael:

Sure. We are very cognizant and think about what the market will bear in terms of the fees that we charge. We’re certainly not going to undercut ourselves so we’re constantly looking at the rates that we use for our contracting services. One thing that we’ve just invested in recently that I’ve realized that I should have addressed when we were talking about bouncing business versus research from the curatorial perspective is that we did recently hire someone specifically into the role of being the director of our biological services and that is their job. Their job is contingent upon doing this research … or excuse me, contract oriented work and together with our back office accounting, CFO, COO people, that’s how we deal with the contractual side of things. That said, like Judy prefaced, it’s been a very entrepreneurial culture here for a long time and a lot of folks are amazingly business savvy.

Elizabeth M.:

I think what’s really great about what you’ve done, Judy and Michael, is create a culture in which people are willing to try these experiments and take these risks because they might not all work but unless you’re willing to try some experiments that don’t work, you won’t be able to find the ones that do.

Elizabeth M.:

I’m going to segue here to our last slide which is how to follow our work and here are the Twitter handles and web addresses for places to follow the Ecological Society of America, the Center for the Future of Museums and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Our intent is to tape this recording, I hope it came out well, and embed it in posts on the blog, on the web. I know I can put it on the CFM blog on the Alliance website. Jill, I believe you were going to look for a way to share through ESA as well?

Jill Parsons:

Yes. Yeah.

Elizabeth M.:

And one of the things I will also do is if we can export the group chat, if we see any questions that we didn’t get a chance to answer during the webinar, I’ll give Judy and Jill a chance to weigh in and we can write up some answers to those as well.

Jill Parsons:

I’ve also been really impressed with the discussion that you all have been having. It’s been really cool to see, thank you.

Elizabeth M.:

[crosstalk 00:59:16]

Judy Gradwohl:

… for having us.

Elizabeth M.:

Thank you so much for joining us today.

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