I found this December post on Darrin Dickey’s Brandingfire blog sad but unfortunately indicative of what is happening to a lot of historic museums: two museums in Baltimore (my hometown) and one near Richmond closed their doors last fall. The reason: they couldn’t afford to stay open due to a decrease in attendance and support.Darrin points to the growing importance of operating museums as a business as an important way to stem this problem. This concept has been the focus of many of our discussions in my “Museums in the Digital Age” class over the past two weeks. With incredible foresight, museum specialist John Cotton Dana predicted the need for this type of business model as he was writing in the early 20th century. He emphasized the importance of appealing to the museum’s audience, for without an audience, who was the museum serving?
Sometimes museums get so focused on their bottom line that they start to go after the low-hanging fruit – programming grants offered by governments and grant-making institutions. However, many programming grants come with specific requirements, such as serving underprivileged or minority populations. While these requirements do make sense, they aren’t always practical for the small history museum to incorporate. If the museum is in a homogeneous population area, advertising to minorities in different locations could get extremely expensive.
Along the same lines, it is important to consider whether the programming the grant is funding even relates to your museum’s mission. If there isn’t a strong connection, you may just be diverting your resources to sustain a program that isn’t helping your bottom line. In the meantime, your programs that do serve your mission can suffer.
One of the key tenants of CEOs in corporations is to keep their eyes on their goals. They don’t incorporate programs that don’t serve their customers, because the programs won’t make money and they will waste resources. Museums needs to think like CEOs. Keep your eye on your mission and let it guide you.