David Wallis Article “Start-Up Success Isn’t Enough to Found a Museum”. Success at museum start-up isn’t enough to make for a successful museum.
David Wallis Article “Start-Up Success Isn’t Enough to Found a Museum”. Success at museum start-up isn’t enough to make for a successful museum.
I never loved the Beatles, not to say they are not a wonderful musical group, just not my thing. For me I prefer the Rolling Stones or the Who, that is just me. There is no apology needed for likes and dislikes, as my mother used to say, “it is fine to say “No, thank you””.
I never loved the Whitney Museum, again not to say it is not a wonderful museum, but not my thing. I prefer MoMA or the Guggenheim. Yes, I know they are very different collections, but those are my likes and dislikes.
It is important to understand that every community cannot include everyone. Different people belong to different communities.
Below is a list of “how to build a museum brand in 10 steps” or “Museum Branding in 10 steps” :
1. Founders – It all starts with the personality of the founders. Understand the founders individual and group personality and if a key component to the brand is laking from the group, consciously add those personalities to the mix of people.
2. Community – Understand your target audience. Age, income, religious beliefs, social beliefs, distance from the venue, interests and non-interests.
3. Segment Community – Once you understand your targeted community, segment the community. The 2-5 year old user has different requirements than 5-7 year olds; 20-35 year olds have different requirements from 30-40 year old family audience.
4. Segment Requirements – Understand the requirements of each segment.
5. Create a loop – Ask each targeted segment of their needs, listen. Test, and make changes. Repeat. Your “loop” can be used for testing all aspects of the museum from ideas of new exhibitions to on floor programming, donor requests and collection acquisitions.
6. Share the vision – Build and share the brand vision.
7. Cull – In the process of building and sharing the vision you will loose staff and community. That is fine. Be realistic, trying to build a brand for a historic house in a community of 10,000 people and expecting to attract 300,000 visitors per year, is not an issue of brand, but of expectations.
8. Staff Selection – The most important impact on brand is staff selection. Even more difficult to change than institutional culture is brand. We can all sense a less than genuine brand, when the staff and brand are not in alignment, there is a inconsistency. When I go into REI, I believe the floor staff use the equipment, when I go into Big 5, I have no confidence that the people who work there use the merchandise.
9. Refine – Starbucks has now removed the word Starbucks from their logo, the brand is now so strong we all know the logo and all that it embodies without the company name. MoMA, is seldom written out (Museum of Modern Art), the four letters have become an embodiment of the brand. Reduce your brand to it’s core.
10. Let the brand out – I love the City Museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Mutter, The Yale Art Gallery and DIA, (to name a few). I am happy to promote each of the venues, I am an enthusiast (an unpaid enthusiast). I don’t receive any payment from any of the mentioned venues, they have never been a client, but I am happy to spread their message and share their brand with others. Encourage others to spread the brand.
You will notice there is no mention of logos or color schemes above. A logo is a symbol of a brand a way to communicate brand. Brand is is much larger than graphic design and logos, it is the embodiment of an institutional culture.
Brand is the glue that holds together a successful museum, it gives visitors a comfort level and engages audience. Building a museum brand is often an unintentional output of a founder, sometimes it is a well crafted form of communication. This series of blog posts will examine how to craft a brand that touches on every aspect of a museum.
I have a friend Mark. He and I have been friends since the first day of kindergarden forty-five years ago (I will be 50 this year). I know Mark as well as anyone in the world, I know how he walks, what makes him smile and his interests. Every time I see Mark, it give me a sense of place, I know who I am, I know how to act and I get a sense of comfort. When Mark, my wife and I go out for dinner, the dynamic changes and we are now a group and the dynamic has changed. When Mark, my wife and I go to a dinner party, we have now joined a larger group and there are too many variables for me to know the expected behavior of the group. This is where brand comes into play, a way to help people with expectations and predict outcomes.
Businesses are the same (yes, museums are a business), a founder hires a staff and most often the founder finds board members and staff that reflect his personality. Most often the culture of a museum can be traced back to the personality of the founder. Brand is the output of a culture, both intentional and non-intentional. I love the quote “You cannot not communicate”. Even when we do not wish to communicate we are still communicating.
I am working on a book “How to Start a Museum”, and I have been struggling with how to create a framework for the book. I believe brand is the framework for all museums. Many will disagree with me. They will say that museums are based around a collection or a mission statement, I say it is a narrative that engages audience. Narrative is the story of an exhibition or program, “museum voice” is how the museum communicates brand.
This idea of brand touches every aspect of a museum, including:
The Content of collections
Museum Programming (Education)
Museum Marketing , (Earned, Owned and Paid)
Back to Mark. When I get together with Mark, I know how to act, it would be out of character to go to a dance club with Mark. If we went to a dance club it would be a joke and we would become silly, because it would be out of character for both Mark and I.
I loved the old Exploratorium. For me, central to the brand was the vision of Frank Oppenheimer of making science accessible. I loved the rough and tumble approach, the plywood exhibits just rolled out of the exhibition shop. At the old location, it was dirty and messy, a place of passion for science exploration. The old Exploratorium allowed me to “own” the content, the content became accessible.
As a next step I will start to describe how to build a new museum around this idea of brand and how existing museums can recraft themselves with a strong brand. Future blog posts will examine each aspect of the museum around the idea of brand.
A year ago we worked on a new science center in Indonesia. The project was on a very short schedule and we needed to use all “off the shelf exhibits” to meet the deadline. As part of the project we created a database of quickly available exhibits. Start to finish the Indonesian science center opened eight months, after I was first contacted. The process got me thinking, “Why can’t we open lots of little science centers all over the world?”. In Asia cites are popping up so quickly they are calling them “Cities in a Box”, why not “Science Centers in a Box”?
I am bothered by the “big box” science centers, $300 million dollar projects seem unnecessary. You could build 100 smaller science centers for the same $300M budget. My thinking behind Science Pop (science center in a box), has grown out of a need for community based science centers. I receive an email a day from groups all over the world interested in starting small community based organizations without the resources to move forward. There has been a dramatic shift in the world of science centers / children’s museums towards “Big Box” multi-million dollar organizations leaving smaller organizations behind. To my thinking there is a greater impact to opening 100 small community based organizations world wide than one large destination based organization. Below is an “elevator pitch”:
Let’s open 100 science centers worldwide. Why can’t science centers be like a restaurant franchise? A parent organization helps with site selection, then delivers a proven solution and continues to advise with oversight. With a $20M (approximate) budget a foundation can be formed to create 100 tested proven educational facilities throughout the world. Each science center would be self sustaining, with the core organization continuing to assure quality and adherence to science standards.
We receive many emails from people interested in opening a Science Center in developing countries. These centers could be self sustaining but part of a core organization that assures quality with adherence to Science standards. Since the Science-Pop (working title) development costs would be covered by the granting organization, the costs would be minimal: $250,000 start up and $70,000 per year operating (approximate).
We have found that trying to explain a science center is difficult. It is much easier to build a “Preview Facility” and show people.
The next steps:
What do you think?
What are the top challenges facing your museum?
If you could ask someone for some advice, what would you ask?
On MuseumPlanner.org I try to address all issues facing museums and museum professionals, whether you are an established museum or just starting out. Over the next month, I’m here to help. All you need to do is ask your question below in the “Post a comment” section.
Ask your questions, your challenges, whatever. Then, over the next couple weeks I’ll review all the comments and do my best to try to help as many of you as I can.
Look forward to hearing from you!
Frequently Asked Museum Questions
Every day, I get a couple of emails asking questions about museums. Thought I would put together a blog post of “Frequently Asked MuseumPlanner Questions”.
1. “How do you start a museum?”
Since 1992, I have been part of opening and expanding more than thirty-five museums. Most of my work has been with science centers, children’s museums and natural history museums.
Link: “How to start a museum”
2. “How do you raise money for a museum?”
Link: “Museum Fundraising” blog post
5. “How do you create a museum exhibition?”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part I – Planning”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part II – Design Phases”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part III – Fabrication”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part IV – Installation”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part V – Maintenance”
Link: “Exhibition Design Part VI – Evaluation”
Link: “Creating a Traveling Exhibition”
6. “How do you Start a Science Center ?”
Link: “How to Start a Science Center”
7. “What do you do (Mark Walhimer) ?”
Link to “What do you do?”
8. “How do you increase museum attendance ?”
Link: “How to Increase Museum Attendance”
9. “What is a museum?”
Link “What is a Museum?”
10. “What is Museum Strategic Planning?”
Link: “What is Museum Strategic Planning – Part I“
Link: “What is Museum Strategic Planning – Part II Feasibility Studies”
Did I miss any Frequently Asked Questions?, if I did please add them in the comment section below, thanks! -Mark
“What is a Museum Feasibility Study?”
We are currently working on a feasibility study for a new Museum / Art Center in New York. I thought it would be a good idea to continue our series about Museum Strategic Planning. As is often the case I would like to offer a definition of a museum feasibility study, starting with a definition of Feasible:
Feasible – “Capable of being done or carried out ‘a feasible plan,’ capable of being used or dealt with successfully : suitable.”
Museum Feasibility Study – “Proof or disproof of the financial and mission of a new institution or expanding institution’s success.”
A Museum Feasibility Study is the next step of the 10 Steps to Starting a Museum.
Too often museum feasibility studies first look at a geographic area and the existing museums and attractions, and then look at the potential visitation of a new museum or expanded museum. I have been on staff at four museums and worked with more than fifty museums as a consultant. Often I see, “Build it and they will come” based on overly optimistic Feasibility Studies and/or Feasibility Studies that don’t consider mission, potential business models, and the future of museums. I have seen many institutions get into long-term trouble with a myopic museum feasibility study. Therefore, this is how I see Museum Feasibility Studies:
Components of a Museum Feasibility Study
Area Demographics: Research the area demographics and population trends, i.e. “Is the local population growing or shrinking?”, “What is the education level of the local population?”, “Who are the largest employers in the area?”, and “What is the city/area’s socio-economic status?”
Business Model: Possible institutional business models. For instance, “Admission Based”, “Donor / Sponsor Based”, “Rental Income”, etc. and percentage of overall visitation.
Visitor Demographics: Define Visitor types, i.e. “Seniors”, “Families with young children”, “Singles”, etc. and percentage of overall visitation.
Area Partners / Competition: Includes list of major institutions in the surrounding area as potential partners and/or competitors with information such as location, website, admission prices, and annual visitation.
Area Tourism: Major attractions and areas of interests for tourists including historic sites, museums, outdoor recreation, shopping, agriculture, and so forth.
Visitor Trends: Look at various age ranges, durations of stay, accommodations, areas visited, and reasons (for vacation, business, or to see family or friends).
Benchmark Case Studies: Consider the business models of three to five comparable or varied institutions by researching their founding history, programs, organizational structure, admission prices, partners, and operating budget over several years.
Recommendations: Outline the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the organization with consideration of mission/vision and the community profile.
Conclusion: Create a clear and concise summary of the findings, from evaluations to recommendations, and offer next steps.
Supplemental Materials: Include all relevant visual aids or appendices.
Bibliography: List all sources used throughout the study, i.e. demographic data from the U.S. Census, organization websites, articles, etc.
Future Planning: Best case scenario is that the plan of the feasibility study will be in place in three years – one year for planning, one year for fundraising, and one year for construction. Plan for at least five years out.
Plan for the Visitor: Visitors are not numbers. It seems simple, but a possible high attendance without a supportive visitorship is of little value, creating a second year dip. Museum visitorship should grow in the second year, not shrink. If your visitorship is decreasing in the second year, you are not connecting with your visitor base.
Draft Mission: I don’t think it is possible to create a realistic museum feasibility study without at least a draft of the mission statement. The mission can be very simple, but at least it is a starting point for a Board of Directors to review.
Peer Review: Politely ask Directors of your benchmark case studies if they would be willing to review your feasibility study and make comments. The data of the feasibility study may be of help with their planning.
Only Half Listen: Many times a founder or board member has a vision of the planned museum and only wants validation of their vision. This is fine if the data and visitor experience supports the founders / board members’ vision. But if it doesn’t, you are doing a disservice by rubber-stamping the vision.
Partnerships: This can be very sedative. You want the information of the study to remain confidential, but you also want to understand potential partnerships and collaborations. Without understanding the potential partnerships and collaborations, you may only be creating a Straw Man.
Plan for your Benchmarks: Once you have narrowed your potential business models, choose your benchmarks and plan your study according to the benchmark, no matter the location.
Be flexible of the of museum type: A client contacts you and requests a feasibility study for an “Art Museum.” It is tempting to create a Museum Feasibility Study based on an Art Museum similar to the one in the next county, but that may not be the best fit for the location.
Look beyond Non-Profit: The museum’s competition will be beyond other area museums. Try to understand the needs of the area.
Plan for the building: Be very general, but try to understand how the proposed museum will use the building.
Too often, I have worked with clients who in their second or third year of operations have found that their Feasibility Study was overly optimistic and find themselves laying off staff and changing programming. I believe the best practice for feasibility studies is to remain “visitor-centric,” always bringing the study back to the potential visitor and how each group of visitors will use the yet-to-be-created institution. Contact me about having us help with your Feasibility Study.
Starting a museum, simple words. I started this blog as a way to clarify my thinking, as a by product the blog as become the world’s most popular resource for museum planning. My most popular blog post has been “10 Steps to Starting a Museum“. Four years after starting the blog, I now have enough content to put together a book, “Starting a Museum” planning to publish by Spring 2013.
The Word “Museum”
Museum: An organization in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which researches, communicates and exhibits things and ideas, for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment, my definition from a previous blog post.
I do not believe a museum is a collection. Many collecting museums have gone through fires or natural disasters, to reopen and rebuild their collection. Of course a museum losing its collection is a catastrophe, but museums have continued to overcome such disasters. I don’t believe a museum is the building, many museums have moved to new buildings. A museum is it’s mission and the intent and communication of that mission.
The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art, and human perception founded in 1969. The Exploratorium’s mission is to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mission:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded on April 13, 1870, “to be located in the City of New York, for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said city a Museum and library of art, of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.
American Museum of Natural History Mission:
The American Museum of Natural History, to be located in the City of New York for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said city a Museum and Library of Natural History; of encouraging and developing the study of Natural Science; of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end of furnishing popular instruction. To discover, interpret, and disseminate — through scientific research and education — knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis:
To create extraordinary learning experiences across the arts, sciences, and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and families.
As descriptive as each mission is they don’t fully communicate the “how” to accomplish the mission of each museum. I use the term “museum voice”, as a descriptive in addition to the mission statement, to more fully describe “how” the museum communicates. As examples, (I am making these up), The Exploratorium will speak with you as the smart hip neighbor who is a little wacky but such an expert that you respect and admire their opinion, The Met is your very rich great great grand father who you only know from his books, photos and memoir, but he is a legend in the field of Art, The AMNH Is the older aunt who has traveled the world as a research scientist whose opinion and knowledge is beyond reproach, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the forty year old young mother who works as a child physiologist and wears Jimmy Choo shoes. Each would communicate in a different manner. I believe a museum is a combination of the mission and “museum voice” that describes the museum.
I believe museum exist on spectrums such as; Collecting / Non-Collecting, Highly Interactive /Low Interactivity, Academic / Informal, Inward Focused /Outward Focused, Early Childhood / Mature each museum exists on a point on each spectrum creating a matrix. Today most museum are categorized by type, such as Children’s Museum, Natural History Museum, Art Museum, Science Center and History Museum as examples. I believe we are at a juncture in museums. In the future I believe large “destination” museums. (Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, AMNH, Exploratorium, The Met) will continue to follow the typcial designations but smaller museums will become community based mixes of all of the types. The reality is every community cannot support a museum of each type, so the community based museums will become hybrids. Recently I consulted on a very large international “Art Museum”. I put “Art Museum” in quotation marks, although the museum has a very significant Art collection, from top to bottom they do not want to think of themselves as a typical Art museum and all of its associations (old, stuffy, snobby, off putting) but instead as an amalgam of many of the disciplines, Art , Science, Philosophy, Community and Technology. Slowly more of these types of museums will emerge.
Starting a museum can be the process of founder deciding to create a museum, leading to community involvement, design, building, fabrication and opening. But, as museums continue to morph, “starting” can also mean an existing museum, with an existing collection, reinventing itself. I have seen many examples of this recently, Curiodyssey is an existing Natural History Museum in San Mateo. The Director Rachel, realized that the museum needed a new direction. The museum changed it’s name, changed it’s logo and most importantly changed its focus. Before the rebranding the museum was a more typical small natural history museum, displays or local taxidermy, fauna, and local history. With the new refocus the museum is now more in the model of a smaller Exploratorium, highly interactive exhibits grouped around themes of science and natural history. The collection is the same, the building is the same, but the museum voice is very different focusing outward instead of inward. When I think of a typical natural history museum the museum voice is “here are the objects, and the content please absorb”, an outward museum voice is “here is something to interact with, now what do you think?” I would include the process of Curiodyysey as Staring a Museum.
When I use the term “Starting a Museum” I am referring to how I see the future of museums, some will be new museums, some will be museums reinventing themselves. I thought it was important to define how I see the future of museums and how I think of starting a museum.
I have started work on a book tentatively called “Starting a Museum”. More than “How to Start a Museum”, the book will explore the question “How could a museum be started?”. I will need lots of help and hope that I can call on the readers of this blog as active participants in the creation of the book. My big questions for the book, “what will the museum of 2050 be like?”, “What is the business of museums?” and “what are new business models for museums”. Most people who start a museum have never started a museum before, the book will serve as a resource for the fundamentals of museums as well as future thinking about museums. I will be looking to add specific editors and contributors in the areas of Fund Raising, Grant Writing, Art Handling, Registration, Board Management, Conservation and Finances and hoping that each book editor can than serve a similar role in an online forum.
My thought is to create an outline on Google Docs from previous blog posts, then work with a content editor (job description link) to refine the objectives of the book. Once the first draft is in reviewable form invite people to comment on the book. Then release as an ebook. Simultaneously I would like to create an online forum for each of the areas of the book. The forum be a place for discussion and more detailed analysis of the topics covered in the book. Once the book has been thoroughly commented on and reviewed as an ebook, publish the book as a softcover.
If you are interested in being the content editor or an editor of a specific area (Fund Raising, Grant Writing, Art Handling, Registration, Board Management, Conservation and Finances) please contact me
This posts is one of many for the book, future posts:
Spectrum of Museums
How to Start a Museum
Starting a Museum
Web 3.0 / Museum 4.0
What is “Museum Strategic Planning?”. We are starting up a Feasibility Study for a new New York museum and been thinking about, “where does strategic planning end and museum planning start ?” As part of my thinking created a definition of Museum Strategic Planning: The thinking and organization to change an aspect of a museum. Would love to hear feedback on the definition.
There is not a standard process by which museums are started, sometimes the building comes first and a museum founder finds support for repurposing the building, sometimes the museum founder funds the feasibility study to see if it makes sense to form a non profit and sometimes a museum is formed as an outgrowth an existing organization. What does seem to be a constant is a “Museum Founder”. A Museum Founder often has the idea to start a museum (sometimes also the financial resources) and after a process similar to “How to Start a Museum” (link), will start creating support within the community for the project.
A possible order of starting a museum
* More details of process at “How to Start a Museum”
Often the plan is the easy part, the thinking and the consensus is the tough part. Possible museum strategic planning work includes:
Then there will be the need to create a “Feasibility Study”, a proof (or non-proof) that the museum is financially viable. The time between the idea of starting a museum and getting to the point of contracting a feasibility plan can be from months to years. Sometimes the organization already has non profit status and a Board of Directors, sometimes the founder funds or finds finding for the feasibility plan.
In my mind it is easy to see grouping Museum Planning with Museum Exhibition design, they need to go together to be successful. Too often strategic planning happens at a different level. Most often Museum Strategic Planning happens on the level of a museum founder, museum funders, politicians museum board members. In a perfect world the path from the pieces museum strategic plans / museum planning / exhibition design would be seamless, sorry to say that is seldom the case. Often the cause is time.
As a rough guide it takes between 5 and 10 years to start a museum, from the idea of a founder to museum opening. Over and over I am surprised that every museum has a founder, sometimes the founder is the person who originally came up with the idea. Sometimes the founder is someone who has taken the idea and has the resources or inclination to move the process forward. Often, I get an email, we just got back from (insert name of city) and visited the (insert the name of museum) and would like something like that in our community”. Most of my experience is with Science Centers, Children’s Museums and Natural History Museums, so most often those are the types of contacts I receive.
Having sat in several board rooms crafting mission statements I would say that honesty can be the most important value. Too often mission statements are crafted around phrases such as “world class”. If possible leave the ego at the door and craft the vision, strategy and mission around “your visitor” and their needs. Then work to communicate messages across all mediums (exhibit text, museum signage, logo, website, staff training, etc.) to “your visitor”.
I have now finished the seven part series “Museum Exhibition Design“. I hope others found the process helpful. The process of writing the series helped me to clarify the differences and order of:
Step 1. Museum Strategic Planning
Step 2. Museum Master Planning
Step 3. Museum Exhibition Design
* As a side note. I am not a lawyer and can’t form for profits / non-profits, not a CPA and can’t set up accounting systems for a museum, not a Human Resources expert and can’t comment of Human Resource requirements and I am not a Museum fund raiser, although I have worked on raising millions of dollars for museums.
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