The Value of Museums

by Guest Blogger Jan McKay
Exhibit Envoy Board Member

As long as I have been in the field (more than 20 years now) there has been an issue with how communities value their museums.  Many museums have embraced the blockbuster exhibit model because these exhibits translate to high earned income and attendance.  These exhibits also help reposition museums as places of delight and entertainment, catapulting the idea of “museum” as valuable for tourism and the economy. Some museums work to provide “popular” exhibits that have nothing to do with their own collections such as Vatican Treasures, Terra Cotta warriors, and Gems and Jewels.

But aren’t there other approaches that draw the visitors?

My professional background includes deep experience in marketing and promotions – something I did for 13 years at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and other places.  I was supported by two great Executive Directors and was able to position the museum and its offerings in ways that were compatible to our marketplace.  But more important than just positioning, our museum really wanted to respond to our marketplace by offering what was desirable – balancing our leadership role with the role of being integral to leisure time activities in the market.  As a marketing director, I contributed to decision making about which exhibits to host and which to create in-house.  We also conducted extensive marketing research to gauge how the museum was perceived relative to other cultural offerings and leisure time organizations – what our “brand” was so we could work on making it what we needed it to be.

Listening to the community

Sadly, getting a museum to respond to the needs, desires, and interests of its community seems to an idea that is not wholeheartedly embraced by all museum boards and staff.  I am suggesting that for many, the “if we build it they will come” philosophy is all too alive and well. The role of true marketing research is not utilized, professional marketing and promotional assistance is not sought out, and museums have a tendency to be fearful of stepping out to partner with non-traditional entities.  Playing it safe, i.e. partnering with like-minded organizations is fine, but gigantic leaps in positioning the organization can often be made in other ways.

Rethinking our approach

As museum professionals we need a lot of work in creating stronger communications and promotions that tout the assets of the overall California museum community. This is certain.  But museums also need to determine whether or not the same things we call assets are also things that the community values.  (And of course there is not just one community but many segments). Perhaps the assets we are touting are not the right ones. And perhaps we need to create new “products” that are the assets desired by stakeholders and community members.  I think a dramatic re-think of museum “product” is needed.  After all, with technology today, who needs to go to an exhibit to read copy on the wall and look at pictures?  What do museums have that no one else can mimic?

What can we do to take museums into the community, and not just in a digital format?  How can we share the collections in surprise locations and with non-traditional partners?  How can we let young people develop and share their own collections? How can we share our collections that are locked away and rarely shared?

Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Natural History

We have the real stuff!

My paleontologist friend used to remind me that people would rather look at the real T-rex bone versus a cast of one… collections, the real things, are what museums can offer to the community.

Rethinking all the time

 Talk with anyone you know.  They are stressed, on the go, and overwhelmed with choices. Maybe we should stop expecting them to spend an entire day at the museum.  What can we do to deal with their pressing needs and everyday
chores?  I love the farmers market on the grounds when parents drop off the kids for Saturday morning classes!

While I advocate for innovation, promoting what is already awesome about your museum is something to put real money into – not a necessary evil but true budgetary support.


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