Monday, March 29, 2010

Solutions Series 2: The Offsite Museum Bar

This idea began when I tried to attend  one of the very cool Science on Tap events at National Mechanics in Philadelphia.  Each month, the science museums in the city take turns hosting a lecture at this bar, which sort of looks like it was decorated by a mad steampunk scientist/collector on the inside.  Anyway, back in January they hosted a lecture called “The Origin and Evolution of Beer” on one of the coldest nights of the winter.  When my friend and I arrived at the bar, we could not even get in the doors because people were poured out onto the front stairs. That’s how popular the event was—people were turned away.

So I got to thinking… these events are free.  What if they had charged for the lecture, even $3 per person?  What if the bar gave the museums a percentage of the bar take for the night (they might already do this, I have no idea actually)?  I know other topics have perhaps not been as popular, but even if they still had 30 people show up, it would be a money maker.

From there I thought – what if museums owned offsite bars?  I say offsite because I have been to events at museums where people are drinking.  I have seen a woman so drunk she actually reached out and TOUCHED A PICASSO.  Seriously.  Not good, my friends.  Also, the overhead costs of keeping a museum open (electricity, security, heating, whatever) are astronomical.  Not to mention the insurance risk!

Non profit organizations (like museums) can own for-profit businesses.  This bar would just be another source of revenue in the museum’s portfolio.  Many museums have offsite shops in retail centers either year-round or at the holidays.  These shops raise brand awareness and also bring in some cash.

Nina Simon wrote about why museums should have bars back in 2007.  Her take on them is that they both build audience awareness, and that they are excellent sites for high participation and fun.  I am unsure if she is promoting onsite or offsite bars, or both, but either way, it’s still a great idea.  Cotton on, museums!  There is money to be made here.

Now, imagine taking objects from the museum’s storage and moving them offsite to a secure bar location.  You can have one or two security guards on duty.  You can have secure, temp/humidity controlled cases.  You can pick lower risk but still interesting objects to display.  People will be able to get an eyeful as they sip great microbrews.

Then imagine the programming!  You could have neat lectures on the history of beer (obviously popular) or historical scandals, scientific breakthroughs or climate change.  Whatever. You could host independent musical acts. You could have authors do book signings.  Museum object trivia.  A historically accurate dinner menu from Victorian times [offsite at a tavern!] – maybe bar patrons would wear costumes!  The opportunities are endless.  And you can charge a fee for all of these events.  Obviously you will have to pay the people who are presenting these programs, but you can still make money.  (And maybe, museum members get in free/at a reduced rate/get a discount on beer.  Or even have “museum bar” memberships!)

Basically, you would have a cultural experience—outside the museum—that provided education, fun, and a chance to be close to museum collections.  Museos from all around the city would find it an interesting place to hang out, swap museum stories, and network.  Tourists could go there for a unique night out. Locals could count on it to be interesting, educational, and fun.

And the best part – all the profits go into a fund that goes to pay museo salaries. 

And maybe Museos would want to take part time extra jobs helping out there?  Museos could try jobs out that they don’t get to do at the institution proper, with the assistance of their colleagues at the home institution. A curator at the museum could function as a programmer for the bar (as it is a different business, they would be paid a separate amount by the bar).  A museum educator could design the exhibits.  A cataloguer could present a lecturer.  Museos could broaden their skill sets and have a chance to learn from their colleagues.  Alternately, the museos could keep their same assignments at the bar.  It would be up to the organization.  Regardless, it would let museos share what they do with a much broader audience – perhaps their friends who don’t necessarily frequent museums would be open to visiting a bar.  That may, in turn, inspire those friends to check out the remainder of the collection at the museum proper.

So this idea combines museum collections, alcohol, fun activities, and potentially large profits in a secure location that would be (hopefully) cheaper to have open than the museum itself.  Yes, there are costs involved in opening a bar (renting a location, staffing, insurance, liquor licenses) but hopefully this bar could make a profit in the end.

Thoughts?  Also, does any museum want me to consult on the bar they are now planning on opening?  I am definitely available…


  1. What a great idea!
    My thesis project is a summative evaluation of two museum trivia nights, hosted in bars, in Seattle. So I have a lot of proof that people like to learn about history and science while having a glass of beer, though these events are held in participating bars in the city, not in a museum's personal bar.
    Some of the rounds even include objects from the teaching collection (like fossils, small skulls, or baskets) so there is less danger in taking them out of the collection and into a public place.
    I can't wait to hear more ideas about how to raise money for museos.

  2. I'm planning to open a participatory pub in 2011. Part of the strategy is to hire people who would otherwise be taking entry-level museum positions as floor staff or educators. I think I should be able to pay them slightly more than they can make in a museum, and that they would get some training that would be applicable to museums while somewhat unusual.

    I'm looking at apprenticeship models and am particularly interested in finding ways to pay people a living wage for a temporary job. It's important to me to have lots of people cycle through the institution with new ideas and then take their learning to more traditional institutions. I'm still trying to figure out how to make this kind of system as appealing as possible without using full-time long-term employment as the carrot.

  3. I've just saved this on and tagged it as "boozeum", which may be the most clever thing I've said today.

  4. @Erin
    Wowzer, we cannot wait to read your thesis. Really like the bit about using teaching collections, I hadn't even thought of that option. Low risk, still educational and fun.

    Cool! Seems like we share an affinity for bars and museums, eh? I like the idea of giving museos a start and then sending them off with more experience. It's a direct benefit to Museos in an experience sense, as opposed to a longer-term benefit to the Museo-salary fund, but still gets them a living wage to start. Do you think that after they finish working at the "Boozeum" (newcurator's term), that these Museos will be able to find jobs earning a comparable rate, or will they end up taking a paycut when they get a more permanent position? Could be a conundrum. But it will definitely raise the sector's awareness of wages, and give Museos an incredible start.

    We'd love to hear more about it, whenever you are ready to reveal. There is so much exciting potential in this idea. Awesome!

    We've been calling it the "Brewseum", but I think I like "Boozeum" better as it is not beer-specific. We actually have a really cute tagline for it, but we are saving that one up for later.

  5. While I agree that bars/restaurants are a fantastic source of revenue for museums, I don't think that extra money would neccessarily be used to improve salaries. The museum I work for has a restaurant that is very popular for private events and brings in a ton of money -- however, that revenue just goes back to pay off restaurant expenses and then the general revenue account. I feel that that is probably the case accross the board, the Director thinks "Look, I'm getting more revenue to put towards collecting/education/endowment." Why would the administration be willing to put that money towards salaries for people already willing to work there for low wages?

    I guess the moral of my story is that it takes more than just an increase in revenue to improve salaries, it takes a change in the whole mindset of the institution. I know at my museum, at least, that changing the attitudes of those in power is the most difficult piece of the salary puzzle.

  6. The idea of a restaurant or a bar in a museum is a tried and true model. Even though it's a moneymaking business, it helps to facilitate he visitor experience, and to keep people from leaving the building because they need to eat or drink. Theoretically, the restaurant itself can be a draw when you think of "The Modern" at MOMA, which earned a Michelin star; I think we will see more of this in the future (the Times recently wrote about this).

    But the idea of an offsite bar is really getting away from the furtherance of the mission that any NPO must keep focused in its sights. It's not really the mission of a museum to operate a commercial business to feed its charitable measures (and by transference pay its employees better wages). If that business fits squarely within the mission and can also generate cash, it's a win-win. Think of how the Metropolitan Opera developed and then licensed Tessitura, the widely-adopted performing arts venue donor database software. Maybe a museum could partner with, or have a loose affiliation with an offsite bar, to offer new experiences to its users; though ultimately, owning and operating one is a liability and distraction from the mission.

  7. @Jeffrey W
    Then how do you explain museums owning offsite shops that are extensions of their onsite shops?

  8. @anon
    Then how do you propose we change the attitudes of those in power? Just saying "that's how it is, too bad" does nothing to fix the problem. Give us a better idea and we would be happy to post it. The Solutions Series is about trying new ideas out.

    What we're proposing is an off-site bar set with the idea that proceeds will contribute to staff salaries. We're not saying that museums that just happened to set up an off-site bar would put staff earnings towards staff salaries. Clearly they would not. Salaries seem to be some of the lowest priorities museums have, which is why we're searching for ways to rectify this problem.

    We at Museos Unite appreciate the difficulty of changing the thinking of people in museums. But until we all start generating some more crazy ideas, we are stuck with the way things are. The answer has to be out there. Don't be afraid to propose something ridiculous! But please don't say "it's impossible to change things." If we believed that, we wouldn't be running this blog. And if that's true, then museums are doomed.

  9. i visited your site and it was good enough than othere site that i visited before.

    part-time job

  10. This is a joke, right? Since the whole premise behind bar nights and lectures is to get more people into the museums, it would be counter-intuitive to send them to a different location. And if the end result is to just filter the revenues back to the museum employee salaries, why don't you just moonlight at a bar in addition to a museum job?

  11. YOUR comment is a joke, right? The solution to terrible salaries in museums is to leave the cruddy museum salaries just as they are, and then work an additional job?

  12. Museum salaries are low, especially considering the specialized training and expertise necessary for the field. However, museum-owned bars are not the answer. For salaries to improve, museum administrators need to make salary increases a priority, which is hard to justify in these economic times as museums across the country face budget cuts and struggle to continue providing high-quality services to the public. Pursuing external sources of revenue linked to museums is dangerous. How does operating a bar to fund salaries really tie into the museum's mission? This might be an appropriate avenue for some institutions, but it is not an acceptable solution for most. If a museum does choose to pursue an external revenue source, it should at the very least strive to improve quality of life. Museums are (or should be) EDUCATIONAL institutions for diverse people of all ages. As educational institutions, they should not be in the business of promoting alcohol consumption. Yes, I agree salaries should be improved. However, museums are called "non-profits" for a reason, and will never pay as well as other sectors.