There are approximately 17,000 museums in the United States. That number includes Science Centers, Natural History Museums, Art Museums, Local History and Children’s Museums.
In March 2010 I returned from a year in Asia. As with any good trip, I had lots of time for reflection and the advantage of perspective; being on the other side of the world does that. While sitting in my hotel in Bangkok, I started thinking of all of the museums all over the world and the current economy. My first thought was, “How can they all survive?”. The easy answer is “they won’t survive”.
The museum world is in a time of transition. When I started working in museums in the 1980’s, it was the time of Reaganomics. Up to then, museums were either donor-, state-,or federally-funded institutions without much public input. Reagan put an end to that and demanded that museums needed to change and look to corporations and individuals for funding. At the time museum professionals were outraged. Museums were the “source” of content; no one should interfere with the purity of the museum’s objectivity. Looking back, this was a turning point for museums. Museums went from inward-facing institutions to being forced to ask for donations and the involvement of others. It was painful, but the result is we have public-serving institutions.
I believe we are at a similar turning point. Museums live and die by attendance figures: if you can’t drive attendance, you can’t keep the doors open. Depending on the institution, only about 50% of the revenue comes from admission, the remainder comes from museum rentals, store sales, donations, grants, memberships, state and federal funding. Donors want to know how many visitors their donations will be affecting. For most museums, attendance is down; people are cutting back on discretionary spending. With less state and federal monies available, museums are faced with tough decisions.
To address the need for new and additional funding sources many larger institutions (1) learned to drive attendance through “special exhibitions” and started to outsource exhibition design and fabrication. Starting in the 1970’s with the “Tut” exhibition, museums learned you could drive attendance with “blockbuster” exhibitions, becoming a main model for increasing visitorship over the last 30 years. Additionally, many museums, large and small, had in-house exhibition staff to design and build exhibitions. With the downturn of the 1990’s, many began to dis-band their in-house departments and began contracting with design and fabrication firms for production of traveling exhibitions as a cost-saving option.
Today, museums have increased competition from other sources for destination dollars. Movies, amusement parks, and themed restaurants are competing in the same field as museums. Donors see shrinking attendance, are unsure of their own futures and are more reluctant to donate.
When I was working at Discovery Science Center in 1996, we visited ten science centers throughout the United States. On the flight back, a board member said to me, “You know nobody travels to other science centers. People only visit the science center near them or maybe visit a science center while on vacation. Why don’t we find the best exhibits and buy them for our science center?”. In 1996 it was a new model buying exhibits to start a science center; now it is the norm.
During the early 2000’s, museums were being built at a furious pace, with a race to build the biggest. Many of them failed, closed, or became other institutions. One result of this was an increasing awareness that museums are community resources. Although tourists help with attendance, they are only a small percentage of overall museum visitorship. Most museum visitors are local visitors looking for weekend and daytime activities. The secret to being a successful museum is being flexible and visitor focused. A small institution often has an easier to keep visitor focus.
Donor contributions are shrinking. The success of museums is built on attendance. Smaller museums are more flexible. Museums don’t have the resources to “renew” themselves every three months. What is the answer?
What if, they “traded” exhibits and programs every three months? An online “hub” of museums could provide a forum for museums to share content and make arrangements to “borrow” each other’s exhibitions. In many ways this is already happening vis-a-vis traveling exhibitions; museums rent each others exhibitions. What is lacking is a “network” for collaboration for sharing of content (2).
What if there was a place where parents, teachers, scientists,museum professionals, artists, students and experts could all share ideas both on the internet and in person? The “Hub Museum” is such a place.
The Hub Museum is not one museum but a new model of a partnership of connected museums. Instead of a children’s museum, natural history museum, an Art Museum, a Science Center, the Hub Museum is all of them! Museums live through attendance and attendance is driven by new programs and exhibitions. The Hub Museum changes every three months into a new place and the exhibitions are rotated through all of the fellow hub museums.
Teachers, parents, scientists,museum professionals, artists, students and experts all gather online at “The Hub” portal. Teachers can share lesson plans and review science standards and curriculum. Parents can view lesson plans and curriculum. Scientists can answer questions of students. “Citizen scientists” can earn “expert” points by answering questions. Students can ask questions and learn from one another and experts. The online presence is fun and relaxed, although the content is in line with California Science Standards and National Curriculum. The Hub Museum portal is a shared online community amongst museums, parents, teachers, scientists, experts and most importantly students.
Museums become the hub for in-person activities. Instead of museums trying to individually create exhibitions, they are created through a network of museums all working to the same educational standards and curriculum. Instead of each museum working to separate standards and curriculum (but standards & curriculum are unique to each state – that would help give relevance, but it’s also “thinking in the box” the curriculum of the schools is shared by the museums and museums work in partnership with one another to design and build exhibitions.
Exhibitions are then shared amongst museums, so museums are always changing. Superintendents of schools, teachers and students are aware of the educational content before they visit the museum.
Still the museum is serving a different role than the school, the museum is an informal place for exploration and discovery related to the formal education at school.
Instead of the typical museum approach of hiring a “world class architect, hiring a ”world class exhibit designer”, the “Hub Museum” approach, is:
• A “Hub of content” for the museum
• Open Source content: the museum’s content and programs are shared and available for teachers and parents
• Collaborative: the exhibits, exhibit content and programs are shared by several institutions
• Exhibit spaces are easily changeable
• Dynamic: the visitor spaces change every three months
• Transparent : the planning of the institution is shared and available to the community
• The Hub Museum will be an amalgam of museums; a Children’s Museum, Science Center, Natural History and Art Museum
• Shared Curriculum
• Museums curate their content from the “Hub Museum Network”
To make this all work the “Hub Museum” is governed by a panel of advisers who over see the content and direction of Hub Museums. Advisers to include:
- Museum Directors
- Business Leaders
All content is open source. Users agree to adhere to guidelines similar to open source software, each user can build upon another’s content, but only owns his/her content. Using the open source software model “users own their branch, but not the tree trunk”.
The business model, of “The Hub Museum” website is for profit. Two possible business models are being explored, one is users pay a 5% or 10% fee to “The Hub Museum” , using a similar model as guru.com or ebay.com. A second business model is the site is supported through advertising. Both options are being explored.
The desired result is a revitalization of museums. Museums currently don’t value their own content and often give it way. In this new model, museums and the visitor benefit from more agile and engaging educational experiences and museums could have a new revenue source.
What do you think?
(1) When speaking of “museums”, referring to all types of museums, including science centers, children’s museums, natural history museums and Art museums
(2) When referring to content; referring to exhibits, exhibitions, programs, staff training, teacher training and museum research