Friday, October 2, 2009

So Why Doesn't Your Museum Just Give Away Free Ice Cream?

Would better public funding mean better museums?

I know this may not be the best time, economically or otherwise, to bring up the topic of "public funding" , but I've been thinking about this a lot recently since the notion keeps popping up in projects and meetings I've been involved with.

The biggest operational trick for most non-profits, including museums, is a steady, reliable funding stream.  Without having a clear sense of your resources, realistic budgeting and planning becomes nearly impossible.

So how have museums reacted to these budget uncertainties?  Unfortunately, in many cases, by the institutional equivalent of buying lottery tickets.

All sorts of dodgy "get rich quick schemes" seem to have forced many museums into, to be charitable, exhibits, programs, and events that are "off mission."  For example, I'd love to know what showing the latest cheeseball Transformers movie on your IMAX screen has to do with history or science.  Or how turning the latest kids TV show character into a traveling exhibition practically devoid of content is best serving the needs of our visitors.

I can hear the arguments already --- "but if we bring people in with some pop culture exhibit or program, they'll stay to see the rest of the museum."  By that line of thinking you could also give away free ice cream to get people in the door, but is that really what museums should be doing?  (Also the "but they'll also look at the rest of the museum" rationalization was played out 25 years ago when planetariums started doing Pink Floyd laser shows on Friday and Saturday nights for the stoners...)

So let's do a little blue sky thinking --- if numbers (either visitation numbers or dollars) weren't the primary motivation for museum decisions, how would the look and feel of your exhibits and educational programming change?  More importantly, how would your institutional priorities change?
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