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“What is Museum Strategic Planning?” Part I

Mobius Science Center Bubble Diagram

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

  1. Idea of a museum
  2. Museum Founder
  3. Community Support
  4. Board of Directors
  5. Business Status (For Profit, Non Profit, C Corp)
  6. Museum By Laws
  7. Feasibility Plan
  8. Mission Statement
  9. Business Plan
  10. Fund Raising
  11. Locating Preview Facility
  12. Locating Permanent Home
  13. Museum Name/  Logo
  14. Human Resources – Setting or Changing Personal Requirements and Guidelines

* 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:

  • Feasibility Plan – Is the Museum financially viable?
  • Mission Statement – In a statement, define the purpose of the museum
  • Museum By Laws – The laws by which the Board of Director governs the museum
  • Board Direction – Assembling and directing a museum board of directors
  • Creating Business Status – For Profit, Non Profit, Corp C
  • Locating Preview Facility – Negotiating with city officials, negotiating with a landlord
  • Locating Permanent Home – Negotiating with city officials, negotiating with a lanlord
  • Fund Raising – Creating the strategy of a Capital Campaign
  • Museum Expansion – Defining the institutional impact
  • Redirection – New Mission, New Museum Name, New Logo, New Location
  • Business Planning – Dealing with economic difficulties
  • Human Resources – Setting or Changing Personal Requirements and Guidelines

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.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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2 comments

  1. As always, Marks experience and observations regarding Museum operations, Particularly NEW Museums, is extremely helpful for a “Newbie” like me. Thanks Mark!

  2. Hi Jordan, Thank you for the kind words! 
    -Mark

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