Saturday, August 29, 2020

Running Museums As Businesses? An Interview with Gary Hoover

Over the course of my museum career, I've often encountered the notion that "museums should be run like businesses."  I thought it would be interesting to hear from someone outside the museum world about just that subject. By a happy coincidence, I recently was introduced to Gary Hoover, an entrepreneur with an interest in museums, who was kind enough to be interviewed and to share his insights with ExhibiTricks readers.   


Gary Hoover is an American businessperson who founded Bookstop, an American bookstore chain. He has been named an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. Gary has also experimented in the tablet game app business and the for-profit “experiential” museum industry.  

Gary's knowledge is supported by his 57,000-book personal library, one of the largest in the United States.  Gary has written three books, The Art of Enterprise, about how to innovate and build successful businesses, Gary Hoover’s Retail Handbook, and, most recently, The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning, which includes recommendations of his 160 favorite books and his slow-reading method for digesting a non-fiction book in under 30 minutes.

All these adventures have given Gary a wealth of experience that he now uses to help others, whether they lead large companies, startups, or non-profit organizations.

Gary's interview begins below.

What’s your educational background?
I view education broadly.  Most of my education has come from the people I have worked for and with, my working experience, and my 57,000+ book and magazine collection.  Most of my values came from my parents, the church I grew up in, and my K-12 school teachers.  

Along the way, I earned a BA in Economics from the University of Chicago, an institution I love and have supported in every way possible.  I was fortunate to study under four future Nobel Prize winners.  However, my course structure was really a liberal arts program, with as much hard science, humanities, and other social sciences as economics.  I also made many great, lifelong friends.  

I have written about my five ways of learning here:

My experiences working for three big companies, two of them department stores, were invaluable to my future adventures.

What got you interested in Museums? 
How can you not be interested in museums?  I think every American has experienced them, usually early in life. By the time I was ten, I had fallen in love with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and of course, it was also near my college campus.  I think I have visited at least 400 museums on every continent but Antarctica, ranging from the biggest and most prestigious to the smallest niche museums.

My first love was retailing, and I have spent most of my working life in that industry.  I still love it and study it daily. As a bricks-and-mortar, direct-to-the-public business, museums are a natural extension of that interest.

When, after co-founding two successful businesses (and one failed one), I looked around for where the next big opportunity was: museums (broadly defined) seemed like a natural.  As the world becomes more affluent and as we evolve from a product economy to a service economy, more consumer spending will go to experiences rather than just more “stuff.”  The future is very bright for the big service industries: finance, healthcare, travel, and education.

In addition, every business I started was fundamentally about education.  Bookstop brought more books from more publishers and authors, more affordably, to millions of people, and Hoover’s did the same with business information.  My big failure, TravelFest, was also based around education, with the second-best travel book selection in America and drawing over 10,000 people per year to its learning center events.  It failed when the airlines decided travel agents were no longer needed.

The experience economy is a real thing, that will only grow – and grow dramatically – in the coming decades.  What share museums and related organizations get is up to them.  The customers are ready.

I met with museum executives and attended industry conferences.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  But my museum visits were the most important way to learn.  I liked some of what I saw but was unimpressed with a lot, too.

I also studied the economics of the industry closely, always with my retail knowledge as a backdrop.  Overall, museums operate short hours, and have an exceedingly high gross margin, attributes that any retailer would be jealous of.  But from a retailer’s perspective, their allocation of funds between operations and capital investment are out of balance, they are not efficient users of space, and, most importantly, are often not customer-centric.

What do you think when people say, “Museums should be run more like businesses”?  
Museums are businesses in my mind, just like hospitals and universities are businesses.  Whether they are for-profit or non-profit just determines whether they contribute to the tax base, their governance structures, and their systems of financing.  None of these corporations will survive longer-term if they do not contribute something of value to society or if they fail to serve their customers.  I have written about that here:

What are your pet peeves about museums?
I love museums and have told retailers how much they could learn from the best ones.  So my main concern is that they are falling short of their potential, not growing the business up to its potential.  The customers are there if people want to offer them quality experiences.  Many more people could be served and more jobs created if museums lived up to this potential.

I believe the biggest failure is not being customer-oriented.  I paid $60 for the big ticket at a major city science center, and just as I was rushing to consume the best exhibits before closing, I was told that the museum was closing early for a private party.  In a major historical site, none of the men’s rooms had toilet paper, something that would get you fired at Walmart.  At many museums, customer/human contact is nil, and the only people you meet are surly or at least unfriendly guards.  

I got an insider’s tour of a great art museum for a bunch of us “VIPs.”  We met some of the artists and received deep storytelling about the major works.  But everywhere we went, “the hoi polloi,” the paying customers, stood in the background, fascinated as they eavesdropped.  But they were shown no courtesy, not made to feel welcome like us “people who matter.”  

Most museums are closed evenings, when most people seek experiences.  In most museums, the staff has weekends off, the most important time of the week.  Only twice in my hundreds of museum visits did I see the director on the floor. 

All of these things would be intolerable even at a Goodwill store or a Dollar General, let alone at Nordstrom’s or Neiman-Marcus.  Or at a Best Western or Motel Six, if it has good management.

A more complete list of my broader thinking is here:

What are your thoughts on for-profit museums?
Deciding whether to make a museum a for-profit or non-profit is a complex decision.  There are pros and cons to both.  

I raised seven million dollars to start a for-profit museum-like experience but had to abort the project when the Great Recession of 2008 made further fundraising impossible.  For that project, I selected the for-profit model.  

If done at high quality, for-profit corporations can be more sustainable, and I always wanted my ideas to have long lives.  John Deere and Procter & Gamble, two of my favorite organizations, were both founded in 1837.  Their futures (and jobs) are secure as long as they serve customers.  Donors can be more fickle and sometimes less logical than the public. As a retailer, I trust the public to make the right decisions and to respond to the best quality operations.  The customers will always be there.  The organization’s fate is completely in the hands of leadership.

Making your organization totally dependent on customers ensures that you will always be customer-first.

I have served on several non-profit boards, where the conversations are often irrelevant to the customer experience.  I have been a board member of several for-profits, including my own companies and Whole Foods Market.  Those conversations are overwhelmingly about customers and what their experiences are like.  Every smart businessperson knows that the profits will flow if you serve people well, if you give the public value for their money.

Remember that all these organizations, of both types, must make a profit in order to be of value to society.  Non-profits just use different terms like “reserves” and “surplus” for profits.  But any organization that spends more money than it takes in, year after year, is not long for this world.  

Profits, the excess of income over expenditures, serve several critical roles.  They are the only insurance against “rainy days” like closing because of a virus, and thus the best income insurance for employees.  

Profits are the source of all experimentation and innovation: new, risky ideas can only be tried with these “excess funds.”  We would never have heard of an iPhone if the iPod had lost money.  The big success of the first commercially successful detergent, Tide, in the 1940s enabled Procter & Gamble to invest in the technology to put fluoride in toothpaste in the 1950s, eliminating a lot of cavities.  

Profits are the only way organizations can expand, create more jobs (and more interesting jobs), and serve more people, if what they are doing is worth doing.  

These principles are just as applicable to non-profits as they are to for-profits.

As long as I am talking about profits, overall the profit system puts great pressure to become more efficient and lower prices.  As many businesspeople know, the best way to increase profits is to lower prices.  

Henry Ford lowered the cost of a car dramatically and Samuel Insull did the same with electricity. Companies like Microsoft and Dell achieved success by making software and hardware far more affordable (and accessible) than in the old mainframe computer days.  Companies including Southwest Airlines, Costco, and UPS rose to power by lowering prices, paying higher wages than their peers, and in each case being very profitable compared to their competitors.  When business is “done right,” everybody wins.  

I also think that the funding mechanism for non-profits is probably less efficient than that of for-profits.  I once attended the annual banquet of all the non-profits in my city and looked around to see hundreds of fund-raisers and grant-writers. All together, they raised far less money than the relative handful of people who raised the money for all the startups in town.  I saw that as a potential waste of human energy and talent.

I have concerns about the tax base in America.  Whether you think taxes are too high or too low, funding key government operations is critical.  We have an aging population with fewer of working age.  We have a large number of people who do not contribute to taxes (58% of federal income taxes are paid by the top 6% of income-earners, who also pay the highest tax rates).  I think it is likely that the non-profit sector is growing faster than the for-profit part of our economy.  Tax-exempt state and local governments are also growing.  So we are becoming increasingly desperate for taxpayers.  By creating a for-profit company that pays taxes, I can better help alleviate this major problem.

None of these thoughts should imply that I am opposed to non-profits.  I gave my college far more money than I kept for myself.  They got over two million dollars and today I live on social security, after risking all my own money on my last, failed idea.  

There is nothing better than a great non-profit corporation or a great for-profit corporation, an organization that knows its purpose and serves people well.  

What advice would you have for museum professionals who want to learn from Business History?
With the limited time and space here, I would just suggest that people start by studying the lives of the great entrepreneurs.  On our American Business History website, we have biographies of more than twenty of the greatest.  Their stories tell how they thought and how they built their great businesses.  Perhaps start with a great retailer, a great employer, and a woman of conviction.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?

Storytelling, engaging human interest in the human stories behind the art and innovations, putting the customer first, and the points I have already mentioned. People love the stories of people.  Most art museums only tell you the name of the picture, who painted it, and who donated it, with dates.  What were these people like?  Why did they do what they did?  What can we learn from them?  The same goes for scientists and innovators in science museums.  Tell us the human stories!


Engage people!  I see so many “interactive’ exhibits that are expensive, custom-built, but not much fun.  In a museum in England many years ago, one room was just pens and blank post-it notes soliciting comments from visitors on the subject at hand.  The walls were covered with thoughts, and everyone stopped to read them.  That was true interactivity. 


Museums focus too much on fancy buildings and expensive exhibits instead of on what matters – the customer experience.  Exhibits are static.  Every retailer knows that you have to continually rework your “exhibits” in order to keep customers coming back.  A trip to a Target store is more fun than a museum visit for many people.  (Look at how many museums open strong but then attendance declines, except for blockbuster exhibits.)


What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? 
That would be a long list but for starters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Spy Museum (customer-first), the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, the City Museum in St. Louis (amazing, entrepreneurial), the Holocaust Museum in Washington (storytelling), The Henry Ford, and most of the great science museums.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?
Money should never be the object.  An entrepreneur should be able to create twice as good and high quality an experience for half the money.  My latest unrealized dream can be studied at

Thanks again to Gary for sharing his thoughts and insights with ExhibiTricks readers!  You can find out more about Gary and his work by visiting his Hoovers World website.  Gary can also be reached at

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Friday, August 21, 2020

(Pandemic) Family Movie Night

Building on my last post about book suggestions for your pandemic reading pleasure, I've decided to share some movie picks.

Our extended family "pandemic pod" includes my wife and me, as well as three of our children young adults (two in college, one in high school) and my 83-year-old mother-in-law who lives down the street from us.  

Every week someone gets to choose a movie that we all watch together.  Since there are three old(er) adults and three young(er) adults, we alternate every week between the groups.  It has been a fun way to break up the monotony of pandemic lockdown, but, needless to say, it is tricky to find movies that everyone in our extended family will enjoy. (Draw any conclusions related to museum audiences in this statement that you like.)

So, without further ado, here are my lists of movies that were universally liked, movies that we all disliked, and a couple that split our family audience.  I've used the excellent movie info website, as a reference for all the information below:


A simple Jewish man named Herschel Greenbaum (played by Seth Rogen) works in a pickle factory in Brooklyn. One day he falls into a vat of brine and stays there, perfectly preserved, for 100 years. He comes back to life and goes to stay with his great-great-grandson, Ben, in contemporary Brooklyn.  Once you get past the goofy conceit, it turns out to be a sweet and funny movie.  Much better than I expected.

Two young gentlemen living in 1890's England use the same pseudonym ("Ernest") on the sly, which is fine until they both fall in love with women using that name, which leads to a comedy of mistaken identities.  An all-star cast and lots of snappy dialogue. What's not to like?  (Although I was surprised the younger set enjoyed the film.)

Classic Hitchcock.  Madison Avenue advertising man Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, is on the run from the police. He manages to board the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago where he meets a beautiful blond, Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint, who helps him to evade the authorities. Not all is as it seems, however, leading to a dramatic rescue and escape at the top of Mt. Rushmore. An exciting continuous chase movie filled with some memorable scenes. (Bonus! several early scenes feature the mansion at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island.)

Hamilton (2020)
The life of one of America's foremost founding fathers and first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Captured live on Broadway from the Richard Rodgers Theater with the original Broadway cast. It may not be "perfect" historically, but the film is as engaging as the live performance.

A classic that really holds up.  Awesome production numbers interspersed with constantly funny story arcs with engaging stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor. The "young adults" were all rolling their eyes when the movie started but were smiling and clapping at the finish.

A family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.  That's the short story, but the movie takes sweet, funny, and sad turns in unexpected ways -- perhaps a perfect pandemic movie.

Still Billy Bob Thornton's best performance. A strange, slow movie that builds to its inexorable conclusion.  We all really liked this. I would watch it again.


On paper, this should be a hit -- Hitchcock directs, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly star.  It's a dud. A must miss.  A flimsy story that feels more like a travelogue through the south of France.

A movie that seemed so incredibly cool in 1982, is a massive snore in 2020. Adults fell asleep, offspring hated it.  Unless you want to relive your youthful crush on Sean Young, skip it.


This movie is on almost every "Top 10 Best Movies of All-time" list. I wanted my kids to see it because I like it and it's a "classic."  Our youngest walked out 10 minutes into the film, another stuck it out while constantly squirming in his seat.  While Citizen Kane's impact on cinematic history is unquestioned, it seems like a tough slog for modern audiences.

I might have been the only one to have seen this film before.  We all acknowledged the (still!) amazing special effects and the interplay with supercomputer HAL but were (still!) left befuddled by the ending and some of the sloooow set pieces.

I would say this movie actively irritated me. I would also describe many parts of this movie as "icky."  I had previously seen the unsatisfying agitation-fest called "The Lobster" by the same director, Yorgos Lanthimos. I will not be seeing any future films by this director, but all my kids very much enjoyed "The Killing of a Sacred Deer."  (Maybe because their father hated it so.)

What's this all have to do with museum exhibits? Perhaps nothing, although I do think museums are in the story-telling business -- so it is interesting to pay attention to the way movies are put together and what we might take away from their narrative structures and tricks to inform our own museum work.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Reading Recommendations for Museum Folks During a Pandemic

I don't know about you, but at times since the world turned upside-down in March, my interest in reading has become fairly limited.  However, in the last few months, my interest has picked up and I've been reading and enjoying a number of books -- some museum-related, some not.

So here are some reading recommendations for museum folks -- pick a few books out to explore now, or just save the link for future reference.  (NOTE: some of the links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. That means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions about the books featured remain my own.)

Brenda Cowan is the author (along with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown) of a book entitled Museum Objects, Health and Healing.  Brenda was kind enough to share some thoughts about the book and her museum work in an interview earlier this year.

"The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller was a surprisingly easy and enjoyable read considering the subject was Greek Mythology.  The writing was top-notch, no doubt one of the reasons the book was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction.  Highly recommended for a (physically-distanced!) beach trip or weekend getaway.

During a conversation with Jennifer Martin, as part of my Museum FAQ YouTube series, Jennifer recommended this short but powerful book, "Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change" by William Bridges. Given the times we are living in, I found the book especially timely. You can purchase it on Amazon, but cheaper used copies are also readily available on the Web.

Ready for a rollicking, fantastical ride through an alternative universe version of New York City?  If so, you will definitely want to pick up the latest book from N.K. Jemisin called "The City We Became".  I tore through this book because I kept wanting to find out what happened next.  Since this is the first book of a projected trilogy, I'm looking forward to reading future volumes!

Jen Oleniczak Brown's latest book, "Think on Your Feet: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Impromptu Communication Skills on the Job" is one of Inc. Magazines “20 Books That Will Kick Off 2020 on the Right Foot” and has been called “a helpful maven’s guide ideal for anyone who views a podium with fear and trembling” by Publishers Weekly.

Jen was kind enough to share some impromptu communication tips and tricks with ExhibiTricks readers in a guest post earlier this year.

Wildwood is a strange and wonderful book that starts off with a baby being carried away by a murder of crows!  If that doesn't inspire you to pick up this first book in the fantasy adventure series by Colin Meloy, lead singer of the Decemberists (and illustrated by Carson Ellis) I'm not sure what will. I suppose Wildwood is technically a children's or YA book, but I enjoyed it just the same.

I hope you find inspiration and enjoyment in the books mentioned above.  Do you have your own book suggestions for museums folks?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Free Tool CollViz Makes Data Visualization Easy for Museums

A title graphic with the word "CollViz" over data set images

Have you ever considered creating a way to let visitors explore your hidden collections online or in an exhibit? What about including a dashboard that illustrates your community impact in a grant proposal?

“Data visualization” may sound trendy and flashy, but it’s been around for a very long time – even mastered by Florence Nightingale. And you too are already familiar with it -- pie charts, bar graphs, timelines, and maps are all kinds of data viz.

At its core, data viz is the translation of data into visual characteristics. Take a point in a scatter plot, for example. The color, size, and position of that point can each mean something different. Humans are really good at picking out patterns, and so data viz lets us visually explore, understand, and communicate trends in data in an intuitive way.

CollViz (short for Collection Visualization) is a website created by Jessica Mailhot. She’s braided together her experience in collection management and data viz design for her Master’s thesis
project at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Museum & Field Studies Program. CollViz is where you can find pre-made templates of dashboards designed for museums, tutorials for how to use and customize them, and a host of resources to make data viz easy and powerful. Everything on CollViz is free to use, and the software Tableau Public is free, too.

Museums are full of data. It’s how they manage their collections, measure their impact, carry out projects, and teach science. And while data viz has blossomed in many other spheres, it’s still a relatively new frontier in museums. There is boundless potential, though, especially for engaging with the public. Data viz is intuitive and eye-catching. It’s spread over social media, published in popular magazines, and even reports our progress in health tracking apps.

For museums who may be curious about bringing data viz into their toolbelt, there can be some imposing barriers: training time, IT experience, extra funds, and resources suited for other professions. Now the CollViz website is a place for museums to go to get everything they need to make data viz easy, quick, and relevant.

In these transformative times for museums, we need to seek out new ways to make an impact and create engaging experiences for our communities. CollViz is here to make data viz a robust and accessible option for museums of all kinds and is something you can begin today while working remotely. So click over to the CollViz website, and let’s visualize the future of museums together!

A series of data visualization graphs

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"