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?
Share your thoughts and ideas in the "Comments Section" below!

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  1. Wouldn't it be nice if science museums offered experiences to do science?
    Wouldn't it be nice if they didn't have to stoop to show stupid movies to fill seats in IMAX theaters?
    Wouldn't it be nice if science educators could have opportunities for professional growth inside the museum field?
    Public funding isn't the answer: look at the institutions that are totally supported by public funds - (as a weak generality) they offer the least personalized experiences the fewest opportunities to do science.
    A change in strategic thinking is needed. The public won't continue to pay $20 per person to get when they can get better experiences for fewer dollars. Tapping the public coffers (not that you could at this time) would ensure that strategic change won't occur. I'm afraid that only the threat of economics will force people to reconsider what they are doing.

  2. Loved this blog. I am so tired of doing things not because it's the right thing but because it looks good on someone's graph or balance book. Museums need to get back to ideals.

  3. I work at an institution that recently took a veer off mission to help weather the current economic climate. I saw the hours poured into a major project that could have been spent focusing on our core competencies or building other sustainable projects for the future. As the project ended just weeks ago we found out this gamble didn't even meet the "numbers" that were forecasted and planned for. Most museums operate as non-profits which should allow them to focus on projects that are 100% on-mission. Instead, we're seeing Museums focused even more on the bottom line then ever and veering from their mission to get the numbers they think they're supposed to. Perhaps museums that are making these choices arent' sustainable without hitting a jackpot on gambles like this from time to time. In which case those institutions might either reconsider their mission/non-profit status or search for mission-related ways to keep sustainable--even if that means some drastic changes in the way 'business' is conducted.

  4. One of the best examples of serving up popular crap to get visitors is the Harry Potter show at MSI Chicago. The sorry part of this exhibit is that it represents a "fast-food" strategy on the part of MSI and the Boston Science Center. Artificial flavors, lots of corn syrup and chemical additives, expensive packaging- a perfect formula for empty calories. I think the science content is around 6 percent, and some of the consultants involved are pushing for less. But they are getting the numbers. . . .

  5. Ah yes, the "numbers." As Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

    Two additional points:

    1) But if you actually give a complete accounting of ALL the costs (including staff time, extra hours, promotion budgets, etc.) is money actually being made?

    2) If it really is about numbers of visitors, how far down the road are we willing to go to hit those numbers?
    (Hence the title of the post.)

  6. Hey, I like ice cream. And alot of museums do give it away on occasion because other people like it too. That said, there are far too many lame blockbusters and Imax shows at the big science centers. But let's not let the smaller museums off the hook here. Too many of them are lame for being irrelevant. The numbers do matter, or at least a sense that your museum exists for somebody other than your own staff. I'm suspicious of the whining about the bottom line because there's ALWAYS a bottom line whether your support comes from the gate, funders or the state, and each source will always obligate a museum in some way shape or form. I don't think there's any nobility in driving your museum into the ground financially, but that's just what some museums are doing. It's a jungle out there.

  7. The museum and the visitor would establish and maintain a relationship between each other. The museum would (instantly and each time the visitor returned) adapt and respond to the prior experiences, curiosity, interests, learning styles, and time and physical constraints of the visitor in co-creating meaning from museum based resources (knowledge and stuff). Technically this is possible through an RFID visitor card, software driven adaptive exhibit/experience hardware. As the visitor moved through the museum signage would be adjusted via computer for age, reading level, visual abilities, available time, prior visit history. Lighting and and display heights would be adjusted. Routes and related exhibits would be suggested (similar to Amazon book purchase suggestions). Additional experiences, artifacts or content would be made available based on requests/learning goals and collections matchup. From digitized study collections or archives. The relationship would be two-way in additional to being interactive. The museum could ask for help (volunteer hours, internships) and the visitor could make suggestions and requests. The museum could be programmed for quiet contemplation, visits with friends, groups, quick stops, time to burn with familiar places and objects, deep research/experimentation, etc. Ultimately, the museum would be a personal place and the center of a lifetime of shared personal experiences.