Friday, August 14, 2009

Less Money, More Problems

It is very reassuring to see that the thought-path that my brain is following along is simultaneously being followed by lots of other museum freethinkers. Excellent! That must mean that we are all on the right track. (This post by New Curator and the excellent comments are heading towards the same topic...)

As I continued thinking about the major problems museums are facing, I realized that we are looking at the problem from the wrong end. We, as the unemployed or underemployed, are wondering why we aren't being offered more money.

And we know the answer: there's no money in museums.

So if only we could get museums to have more money, then all of these problems would go away. (easier said...) But, of course, first we have to figure out a way to translate the resources that museums have into cold hard cash. If we can solve this dilemma, then we will be sorted!

(NB: in this post, I am purposefully going to propose some pretty "out there" ideas. Please feel free to get all up-in-arms or up in my grill. Or just all up in the comments section.)


First, a list of current problems (by no means exhaustive. Also obvious to all of us):
1. People are going through lots of school (time and money) to get a master's degree. They come out with a degree and cannot find a job that pays enough to offset cost of time/money investment, or a job at all.
2. Not enough jobs (the BIG problem).
3. Heavy reliance on volunteers.
4. People with jobs are expected to work many hours and play many roles.
5. Lots of red tape prevents employees from making changes
6. Museums have terrible opening hours if they intend to attract a wide audience. Most people are in work during those hours.
7. Museums are really competing with each other for resources (both money and visitors), regardless of how much they claim to be collaborating.
...please add to list in comments...

Looking at these issues, we can see that it all comes back to not having enough money. While museums may not be rich in an economic sense, they have endless wealth in other areas. Museums must turn these unique resources into money, and must RETHINK how they have been doing this for centuries.

The person who can come up with how to do this will change the entire meaning of the word "museum." Perhaps together we can figure out a way to solve this problem.

Museum resources (forgive the simplicity in my wording):
1. Objects. Museums have really neat, old stuff that has been well taken care of. People never get to see this stuff in person. If it had not been kept safe by museums, it would either be gone or in bad condition.
2. Records and "intangibles" (knowledge and oral history, etc). Museums have endless knowledge in records and memory, much of which is not widely dispersed.
3. Space. Many museums have awesome buildings and interior spaces, also with accompanying green space that can be unique in urban areas.
4. Experts (research end). Museums have brilliant people who are experts in specific fields.
5. Experts (museo
end). Museums bring together experts from various specialities (educators, designers, programming coordinators, writers, etc) all working towards a common goal.
...please add to list in comments...

Translate resources to money:
This is where I start going a bit "out there" by listing every possible method. I know some of these are unethical or impractical as we understand them now, but perhaps if we can think outside the box, there are ways to make them work ethically and practically.

Resource 1: Objects
-Sell some objects.
----to other museums?
----to individuals?
----to countries what want them back (repatriation for pay, if country can afford it)?
-Loan objects at a price.
----to individual collectors for short times?
-Copy and sell copies of objects
----this is already done to an extent, but generally the copies either look fake and are affordable, or look really good and are way too expensive. People want to take the experience home! Why don't we let them?
-Charge to experience objects
----this is already done too. Unfortunately, this seems to be the way museums are alienating potential visitors the MOST. Who wants to pay $15-25 to go to a museum these days?
----could museums join together (GASP! collaboration) to make group tickets? Many cities have a city pass. Could there be a "museum pass" by state? Could AAM or another group (museum start-up, Pete?) facilitate this? Would it even benefit museums financially?
-Use objects in other media: movies, TV, books, etc. Must be MAINSTREAM if they hope to make any money at all. Must "sell out" so to speak and tap into mainstream audience. Perhaps loan objects (or rights and licensing to object image) as props or stories for movies, books, TV?

Resource 2: Records and "intangibles"
-not really sure what to do with these, other than "movies, TV, books" comment above. Suggestions welcome

Resource 3: Space
-This is already done to an extent, too (however, from many comments I have heard personally, exorbitant cost and special requirements like limited choices once the space is in use might turn people off from using space)
-Museum bars?
-Museum night clubs?
-Are there other things other than parties, weddings, etc that a museum can host? Something that is both cool and educational and would attract a large audience willing to pay a lot? To get really controversial, let's suggest: POLITICAL RALLIES. Discuss.

Recource 4 and 5: Experts, both on research end and museo end
-Some museums sell design skills and exhibits. Can we sell more of these skills? Museums should be seen as the best place to go for any of these things. While I understand that a person who is employed by the museum has their first priority to do inside work, could there be a separate division? (Some large institutions do this already.)

And now for the most controversial statement yet. Please kick up a fuss, or I will be disspointed:

There are a finite number of resources (both money and audience) for museums as they are now. Unless museums make a huge change, then I argue that small museums should have to join with a larger "parent" museum to share resources. Enter: the meglomuseum of the future! (NB: I would rather museums could solve this problem and keep individual autonomy, but I still don't think it is sustainable as people become increasingly reliant on technology. More on this later.)


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  2. As a science educator, may I suggest an 'out there' idea? I teach in Northern VA just outside of DC. I am fortunate to have a plethora of museum resources at my disposal for my students. Many students can appreciate traveling to the National Air and Space Museum - both of them - or even the Smithsonian Naturalist Center. However, even being close to these museums doesn't ensure taking a trip to them. And these are BIG museums that some might consider worth the trip to just to see the facility. I suggest that museums start to create interactive online exhibits of a few of their artifacts. This way the expertise of these museum workers can be put to use in creating media for students and teachers to use in the classroom to supplement instruction without the burden of making a field trip. Schools could be charged a small fee to use these websites. In fact, it might even work as free advertising for the museums if it does a sufficient job at engaging students. This would be very helpful in keeping museums in the mainstream, especially for the demographics who can't afford the trip. Thoughts?

  3. I think one of the biggest conversation that needs to happen is not whether or not Museums should stay non-profit. They absolutely should. It's why do they have to be run that way (see: Why can't they be run just like a for-profit. The curatorship and the business manager should be 2 totally separate jobs. One should be a phd and the other an MBA. One gets grants and funds research into the objects, develops curriculum for schools and colleges, and acquires new pieces. The other acts as chief fundraiser in the form of both donations and philanthropy, but whose job it is to be use the museum as a backdrop for other ways of getting people in the door. This is a NOBLE pursuit. You're sharing these objects with people. That's in their mission statement. They're failing their mission when they have no money cause it means no one is seeing the objects.

    They have to get out of their head that a museum is meant to be respected and cherished and adored....from 9am to 5pm. People will cherish and adore things when they USE them. People don't want to just see these objects and not be able to interact with them. Art is boring cause it just sits there. But since they're encased in glass, the only way to interact with them is to have them be a part of some event or action. Museums should have bars, restaurants, nightlife, dance clubs even. A museum should be a destination for entertainment, where the art and science are the backdrop for life. Living history, not dead history. This doesn't have to be low brow either. I'm not saying bring the club to MOMA. It should vary by the theme of the museum. Geeks shouldn't go to a bar that's sort of made for them, they should go to a place like the Franklin Institute. Galileo's telescope is there! Where would you rather sit and have drinks!? And the blue blazers and flower prints shouldn't go to the Four Season's for tea, they should dip their biscuits surrounded by Monet and Dali.

    As to Meglomuseums: This is actually interesting. Cause from my point of view, as opposed to then just having a mega museum, I look at the small museums like satellites or franchises if you will. Smaller museums could be built in places that are smaller towns or more remote (and sometimes cooler) destinations. But with the backing of a bigger museum, that opens up opportunities for rotations of collections. You can send Galileo's scope out for a week or two to the small franchise and then local people would find it and, poof, there are some more jobs for museos right there. Sharing of collections and information and systems means operating costs are much lower. This benefits both the big museum, and the small museum, and opens up more money for employees and research.

    Ok. But none of these things will help museos get work that is financially viable. But changing the financial structure will. For example. In Philly, the Academy of Natural Sciences just dropped everyone's salary down. If they were making more than $30k/year, it became $30k. If they were making less they took a 10% pay cut. Who can live off of that? Let alone pay debts from a Masters degree.

    So what to do? Again, take the corporate model to some extent. Things like profit sharing for employees. Sounds crazy? If you knew the more people came to the museum, the more money you would make at the end of the year, you'd get everyone in the door like 4-5 times a year. Museum workers need encouragement, and should have a vested interest in getting people in. They should be able to throw their own parties, or have events. Why does this help museos get work? Because the bonus structure can act like a tip, so a $30k salary could remain the same, if you know you'll get another $10k in bonus, then museum studies majors might think it's a workable job.

  4. First, @Tom:
    Museum outreach is always good. Museum outreach that can make money is always good, too. But what museums really need to focus on is making visiting a museum SO cool that people really can't stand not to do it. I don't think putting more on the web is the answer, because that is just another "glass case" between the visitor and the object. We need to go back to "Resonance and Wonder" (someone help me out on the citation there, sorry, my notes are all boxed up) and get people to feel that SPARK of connection. I think the web is good for advertising, but we run the risk of letting it be a stand-in for the museum experience. I don't think it is that.

    I am sure I offended a lot of people right there, and that was not my intention. I am just saying that Objects are an important resource and their inherent value is the experience of being in their presence.

  5. I like the idea of museums expanding beyond the 9-5 schedule. I'm learning to be a guide in a house museum, and I hear the evening wine and cheese corporate events are actually fun.

    St. Louis' City Museum is more of a giant art playground, but they have great weekend hours. They do sell beer, and you can stay until 1 AM on Friday nights, climbing around sculptures made of reclaimed industrial metal.

  6. @Sarah Beer + climbing amidst sculptures made of reclaimed metal sounds like tons of fun. A huge liability, but tons of fun!