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Museums Are Civil Society, Damn It!

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PDF of Article “Museums Are Civil Society, Damn It!”

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”[i]

Last week I received a phone call from a reporter doing an article about the opening of the new Pace Gallery (link).  The journalist was doing a story about how the new Pace Gallery ($100M cost) was “equivalent” to a new $100M museum.  Our conversation:

Reporter: Hi Mark, I am doing a story about how the new Pace Gallery compares to the investment in a $100M museum.

Mark: Hi Lisa (not her real name) thanks for the phone call. The new Pace Gallery is definitely not a museum.  A museum and a for-profit gallery are very different.  A museum is a non-profit mission driven organization and the Pace Gallery is for-profit gallery.  For-profit galleries are part of the museum ecosystem[ii], but very different than a museum.

Reporter: They both have galleries, events, a store, performances, and interpretation.

Mark (cutting off reporter and getting a little irritated): Sorry they are completely different[iii], the motivations of a non-profit museum is to preserve, protect and educate, a mission based organization and a gallery is in the for profit business to sell artwork.

Reporter (cutting off mark, getting a little irritated): They both serve the same purpose no matter what you call them.  The new Pace Galley is beautiful and will provide a museum experience, can you name any museums that cost about $100M that would be comparable to the Pace Gallery ?

Mark: Sorry Lisa, there is already enough confusion by the public about “museum”, I don’t want to be any part of perpetuating a misunderstanding about museums.  Pace is definitely not a museum, places like the Ice Cream Museum[iv] are unfairly profiting off the cache of the name “museum”.  I deal with this issue almost daily, time after time new Board Members think museums are the same as a for-profit business.

Reporter (cutting off Mark and becoming more irritated): Can you give me a list of current museum projects that cost about $100M ?

Mark (long pause): Lisa, much of what museums accomplish is “behind the scenes”, collection management, community outreach, education, and research.  As an example, only less that 10% of a museum’s collection might be on view at any one time.  A for profit gallery does not perform any of those functions. 

Reporter: Just email me a list of $100M museums.

Mark: Before we go, please, please don’t equate a for profit gallery to a museum, it is insulting to people who work at museums and maybe you can tell it “gets my back up”.

Reporter: Okay, talk to you later.         

To be fair to the reporter she called me back a couple of days later and I assume she had spoken to other people who gave her a similar response as mine.  In the second call we spoke more about the differences between the Pace Gallery and museums.

In the current political climate there is thinking that for-profit businesses can provide all of the services of a museum at a lower cost and with better services.  I have literally spoken to half a dozen reporters[v] similar to this conversation that all start with the same assumption that the idea of museums is outdated and would be better served by a for-profit business.

Museums Are Part of Civil Society

“Civil society … refers to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.”[vi]

civil society: the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society.[vii]

Museums are part of civil society and an important part of a democratic society  Having traveled to communist countries, museums are often no more than propaganda machines to support and spread misinformation in support of political agendas.  In the United States museums are explicitly prevented from supporting political candidates or they jeopardize loss of their non-profit status.[viii].  For profit businesses are able to support political candidates and agendas.  Museums are an important venue for exchange of information and debate and discussions.      

Museums and Public Trust Doctrine

Often the most difficult concept for people new to museums.  The museum does not “own” their collection.  The collection is “owned” by the public, the museum is (specially the Board of Directors) is legally responsible for the care and protection of the collection in service to the public.   This is a very important concept and why museum people get their “backs up”, people who work at museums take this very seriously and do the work as part of a public service.  

Museums are Non-profit

Often, I hear from new museum Board Members, “we just need to run the museum like a business”.  My experience is that it can take one to two years for a new board member to understand how museums are different than a for-profit museum.  As an example, museums will often provide in school or in-museum programs for at risk teens.  At risk teen programs are expensive and time intensive, there is no cost / profit benefit to providing such programming, such a program is part of the mission of museums.    

As I said to the reporter, “please, please do not equate museums as the same or equivalate to for-profit businesses”.  Museums are an important part of civil society and are in “service of society and its development”[ix]  


[i] ICOM Statutes, 2007, https://icom.museum/en/faq/what-is-icoms-definition-of-a-museum/

[ii] Museum Ecosystem – refers to artists, curators, for profit galleries, art handlers, art transportation, art storage, framers, lighting, HVAC, ticketing systems, all part of the for profit world that supports the work of museums

[iii] Why New York’s Museum of Ice Cream Wins at Business by Betraying Its Name (and Other Insights) https://news.artnet.com/opinion/gray-market-museum-ice-cream-1634467

[iv]The Museum of Ice Cream Is Worth $200 Million Somehow, Please Help https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3a83j/the-museum-of-ice-cream-is-worth-dollar200-million-somehow-please-help

[v] Pop-up ‘Museums’ Are Instagram Fans’ Favorite Place to Pose https://www.wsj.com/articles/pop-up-museums-are-instagram-fans-favorite-new-place-to-pose-1530815392

[vi] Who and what is ‘civil society? https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/what-is-civil-society/

[vii]Civil society https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/civil-society

[viii] In return for its favored tax-status, a charitable nonprofit promises the federal government that it will not engage in “political campaign activity” and if it does, IRS regulations mandate that the charitable nonprofit will lose its tax-exempt status. https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/political-campaign-activities-risks-tax-exempt-status

[ix] ICOM Statutes, 2007, https://icom.museum/en/faq/what-is-icoms-definition-of-a-museum/

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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