Museums - There is a Museum for Everything
Museums Fascinate, Entertain and Educate Us
Basic to the human spirit is the desire to remember the past, to celebrate a concentrated area of interest or just to enjoy beauty. There is a museum for every taste and interest, from the common local art or historical society museum, to the great and not so great museums of art and the bizarre museums that focus on a slice of life that appeals to a rare few individuals.
A museum, like any cultural institution, can have a significant impact on a local economy. Most museums are not a burden on the taxpayer, but rather bring in a mix of economic activity that usually pays dividends far beyond their costs. Private museums, unless funded by very wealthy patrons, face the same economic difficulties as do museums run by government. Museum jobs, due to economic problems, are competitive. many museums try to rely heavily on volunteers.
The Lucy and Desi Museum
There is a Museum for Everybody
Beyond the traditional and familiar art and historical museums, there are museums that cater to a narrow audience. I once visited the Amber Museum in the Dominican Republic. What, you may ask, makes for an interesting museum that displays fossilized tree sap. Well, it's there. I don't think I shall revisit the place, but I'm sure there are people who can't get enough of it. While in Jamestown, New York I visited the Lucy and Desi Museum. Lucille Ball, one of America's most popular figures, was born in Jamestown, hence the museum. It's a great place, especially if you're an "I Love Lucy" fan, as you can see in the video to the right.
Here are some truly odd museums, highlighted in a fun website called wackyarchives.com.
· Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia in Burlingame, CA.
· The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, aka “Quackery Hall of Fame”
· The Glore psychiatric museum in St. Joseph, Missouri
· The National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington DC. It sounds harmless enough, but don't eat lunch before you go.
· Devil’s Rope Museum located in McLean, Texas, dedicated to everything you ever wanted to know about barbed wire.
· Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Dedham Square, Massachusetts. Enough said.
· Exotic World Museum, aka the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
· International UFO Museum & Research Center, Roswell New Mexico
· Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specialized in coin operated animatronic dummies.
· The Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Everything about the circus.
The British Museum
The Hallmarks of a Well Run Museum
The great museums of the world are heavily funded by foundations and draw crowds that provide a steady income. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/ ) in New York City, for example, has over two million square feet of space and draws over five million visitors per year. Adult admission is $25, $17 for seniors and $12 for students. It also rents audio tours and has a wonderful gift store from which it derives additional revenues. The Met is, beyond doubt, one of the greatest museums in the world. But although it towers in significance from a small local museums, there are similarities between the Met and you local art museum. The Louvre Museum in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and The British Museum in London are but a few world class museums of the world. Here are some of the attributes of a well run museum, both from the point of view of the visitor as well as the budget of the museum.
· A Good Permanent Collection. The permanent collection of a museum are those items that the institution actually owns, compared to traveling or borrowed exhibits. Unless the collection is worth looking at the museum will always suffer from low traffic.
· Rotating Exhibits. Regular shows, perhaps six or more per year, guarantee that the museum will stir regular activity and give people a reason to visit. If a museum only displays its permanent collection throughout the year, visitors have no reason to return regularly. Been there, done that. For a small museum, scheduled and changing exhibits throughout the year can be expensive. Each show or exhibit requires the expertise of a curator whose job is to supervise every aspect of bringing works to the museum, hanging the works, and generally managing everything about the show including publicity. But the cost is a two edged sword: changing exhibits cost money; unless museum management spends that money the traffic will be low and income goes down.
· Membership and fees. A knowledgeable museum director knows that every patron should be viewed as a stream of income. A good museum has an attractive membership plan that includes admission over a year. Once members comes back, the chances are that they will spend money in the gift shop or on food, if provided. Some museums do not charge a fee, but rather post a "suggested donation." The problem with a recommended donation is that many visitors will ignore it because it's voluntary. The reason so many museum do not charge an actual fee is often to avoid paying local sales tax. But it is a better idea to charge the sales tax and do the necessary bookkeeping than have people visiting for free.
· Gift Shop and other Amenities. If you have ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld, you see the genius of the Disney organization on how to make money. You can't turn around 360 degrees without having the opportunity to spend money. Museums should take a cue from Disney - Give the customer a reason to spend money.
o Offerings of the gift shop. Good management knows that a gift shop can't be laden with junk. It's a retail operation and museum staff has to follow good retail practices. This includes selling things that people want to buy. This takes research, plain and simple. Displaying the merchandise is another way to make sure that the shelves turn over.
o Location of the gift shop. Savvy museum management knows that you have to drive traffic through a gift shop, not just hope that people visit. Often a museum is designed so that you enter and exit through the gift shop. Especially if the visitors have children in tow, there is no way they're getting throgh the gift shop without buying something.
o Food and drink. A small museum may not have the resources to provide actual cafeteria or restaurant space. But at bare minimum, it should have vending machines. When a visitor's kid says it's time to eat, guess what? It's time to eat. If the museum does not provide at least snacks, the visitor leaves. It is also a source of income.
o Other sources of income from visitors. Guided tours and audio self guided tours are other ways to a museum to execute its retail task. There are smart phone apps that include self guided tours. Tours should be priced according to the market.
Grants. To say that there is grant money out there from various foundations and corporations is like saying there's gold out there. Yes there is. It's management's task to find it. A well run museum will have one or more specialized grant writers on staff. Writing a grant is a special type of writing, almost like a legal brief, only friendlier. Grant income is a basic staple of museum management.
Museums are special places. They inspire us with beauty, teach us history and cater to our curiosity.
Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran