“Museums are for the Rich”. Museums don’t need to be only for the rich, but overspending, a lack of humility and a lack of planning creates a “preaching to the converted” scenario.
Today, I went and picked up sculptures for Alcatraz Landing. I was talking to the sculptor and we were talking about the California Academy of Science, the sculptor said “I can’t afford to take my family”. The upsetting part, is he worked on the new exhibits. The sculptor, a well educated working artist, can’t afford to take his family to the museum he helped create.
I blame board members more interested in building monuments than museums. I love the work of Renzo Piano, but the California Academy of Science cost, $488 Million dollars. Although (maybe because) it is LEED certified Platinum, the museum costs $58 million a year to operate. So, if the attendance is 800,000 visitors a year, the “cost” of each visitor is $67.50 per visitor (operating budget divided by attendance).
Attendance to the museum costs, Adult $29.95, Child (4-11) $19.95, a family of two adults and two children costs, $99.80. The sadder part is the real cost is approximately $67.50 per person, so $37.51 of every adult ticket needs to be underwritten by grants and donations. I am guessing that the California Academy of Science is encouraging the purchase of memberships with their ticket pricing. A family membership is $199 or twice the cost of tickets for one day. I believe the $29.95 ticket price sends an incorrect message, “education is expensive”. I am member of the Exploratorium ($90 for a family) their pricing is more in line with what a family can afford. I think we are “preaching to the converted”. The only people who can afford to attend the museum, are the wealthy.
How to “solve” Museums are for the rich:
1. Price of a movie ticket The museum business model should be built around the price of a local movie. Here is San Francisco an adult movie ticket is $11.00 and bowling is $11.25 (including bowling shoes). Work backwards, if your want your admission price to be the cost of a local movie, create your Pro forma accordingly. Too many times museums are built on a “what if” senario and a $29.95 ticket price is the result.
2. Hierarchy of Needs Given a choice between feeding a family or going to a museum, a family will choose to eat. I believe in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Often we forget that creativity and problem solving are at the top of the pyramid. If the vistor’s basic needs are not met, they cannot appreciate the joy of intellectual curiosity. Sometimes a family just wants a place where mom and dad can hold hands and watch the kids make a painting, “are you giving your community what they need?”.
3. Build Local If you were to use the same funds as the California Academy of Science, you could build at least 30 local community based science centers. The effect of thirty local centers would have a greater impact on science literacy than one large center. Create memberships not individual ticket sales.
4. Workshop attitude I love the Exploratorium. I am fearful that the new Exploratorium will be another “star architect” project. The charm of the Exploratorium is the ability to allow visitors “to own” the content. The experience is not about the building, the “fancy exhibits”, but the content. At $220 Million Dollars for the new Exploratorium building, I am afraid the charm of the Exploratorium will be lost.
5. Humility Museums serve their community, I have preached that “Museums are Hospitality”, too many museums, believe the visitor is lucky to be able to visit.
6. Content is Content I just completed work on a Science Center in Indonesia, total costs for a 25,000 square feet of science exhibits, $1.8 million or $72 per square foot. All of the exhibits were built in the USA or Canada and shipped to Indonesia. Spending more money does not get you better content.
7. “Tie-ins” Tie into trends that have momentum. The Hall of Science “gets it”, they are working with the Maker Faire to create a permanent exhibition space. The Maker Faire has gone viral, ticket prices at the Hall of Science, Adults (ages 18 & older): $11, Children (ages 2 – 17): $8, including the new “Maker Space”.
8. For Profit is not the enemy As long as the expectations and guidelines are set at the beginning, for profit / non profit partnerships are a win -win.
9. Respect your staff My first real job at a Science Center was Liberty Science Center (1992-1994), I was paid $21,000 per year. The only way I could afford to take the job was my parents helped pay my rent in NYC. I shiver when I see the salaries museums offer. I would recommend it is better to save capital costs and pay a living wage to staff.
10. Keep it going Google has 20% projects, a way to “feed” the souls of the staff of Google (and create fantastic projects like Google Liquid Galaxy amongst many others). Most museums operate at 110%, creating burnout in staff and poor customer service. Most museums are so busy trying to pay back loans and bonds, there is no energy for staff to give back to visitors.
When I write “preaching to the converted”, I believe the purpose of informal education is a place for exploration for people who “learn differently”. Schools and libraries are places for formal education, museums are places for exploration of personal interests and people who learn in different ways. I LOVE the Eli Whitney Museum a community museum run by Bill Brown and Sally Hill, last time I was there, ten neighborhood kids were setting up the new exhibits! Museums are the new Hub of community.