The Business of Museums

In a recent on-line discussion, I found myself enmeshed in a prickly debate about whether museums should be operated as businesses. Some great points were made on the “pro-business” side: museums need income to keep the lights on; getting visitors through the door is essential to generating income both from earned revenue and from funders; museums need to stay on-mission; museums must weigh risk (such as mounting an exhibition on an unpopular theme) with reward (how does this benefit your institution).

I led the anti-business charge in this discussion, and continue to clarify this point: I am not anti-income.  Museums need income.  In fact, they need as much or more income as they have expenditures in order to survive.   Despite not having attended business school, I understand this simple math.

The problem with running a museum like a business lies in the question of how to measure success. In this light, the heart of the on-line debate was captured in this statement: ” I’m not sure how a museum shows how it serves its public successfully except by numbers “through the door” (whether digital or physical or some other measure).”

line outside museum

Line outside the Städel Museum (from

Businesses measure success by quarterly earnings for shareholders.  Museums measure success by numbers served. Both of these numbers have their uses, but neither serves the common good.  However, businesses are not accountable to the common good (unfortunately). Museums – all non-profits – are.

The Problem: Measuring Success Through Visitor Numbers

I worked for many years at a museum in which the education department was asked to count and submit numbers served each quarter.  We struggled with the question of how to count visitors we served multiple times.  For example, students who take a 10-week class offered by museum staff visit the museum 10 times.  Should each student, over the course of the entire class, count as one visitor?  Or should the student count as 10 visitors?  After all, an independent visitor who walks through the door twice in a two-week period is counted as two visitors. A family who attends family workshops four weekends over the course of the year counts as four families.

We were told to count each class session separately.  We served over 1000 individual students in classes which each met with a museum instructor 23 times.  By this accounting, the program served 23,000 students.  This accounting is ethically problematic, as counting each student 23 times drastically inflates the number of individuals served.  But the root of the problem is not the arbitrary nature of how to count these students: it is the counting itself.

The way in which a museum “serves” a student who takes a 20-session class, or a teen who participates on a weekly advisory board, is substantively different than the way in which the museum serves a tourist who makes the museum part of his or her visit, or a family who tries out a family program and may not (or may) return.  When a museum becomes a part of someone’s life, how do you evaluate this with a number expressing “contact hours” or number of visits?

And our tourist: What if he or she has always dreamed of visiting your museum, and finally makes it there, and spends the entire day there, buys books, talks to staff, and writes about the visit later?  Is it fair to measure the success of the museum by adding a tally mark to our list of visitors?

The Solution

Museums need to experiment with alternative ways of measuring value. At a great session at the American Alliance of Museums conference in Spring 2013, Jane Werner, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum noted that she measures success in part through the museum’s impact on their local community (for example,  institutions supported and spaces created) as well as through staff retention and growth.  According to Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer at the New York Hall of Science, NYSci measures success by their impact on formal science education.

I live in Peoria, Illinois.  The Peoria Riverfront Museum just hired a new Director.  This Director is very explicitly charged (by a Board consisting largely of businessmen and businesswomen) with raising funds and increasing the number of visitors who walk through the museum’s door.  These are essential concerns for a new and already-foundering museum. But without a larger goal in mind, this becomes a flat, self-serving goal.  Mission becomes lip service.  Business, rather than mission or ethics, drive important decisions about growth, exhibition planning, space usage.

Once we articulate new measures of success, we will be better at achieving them.  If the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum had only a vague idea that it might care about its community, it would invest far fewer resources in collaborating with and supporting its neighbors.  If the New York Hall of Science did not identify impact on formal education as a measure of success, it would undoubtedly have a much weaker impact on formal education.

My colleagues who took part in the on-line discussion were not suggesting sacrificing mission to income.  Far from it.  But there is a culture of business that threatens our ability to think about our work in a larger context of ethics, community import, message and mission. And every time we measure success by numbers served, the culture of business grows stronger, and our ability to articulate, and thus achieve, our real impact weakens.

5 thoughts on “The Business of Museums

  1. Pingback: Are Ten Objects Better Than One? | Museum Questions

  2. Pingback: What are the Goals of a For-Profit Museum? | Museum Questions

  3. Pingback: The Wheels O’ Time Museum | Moving to Peoria

  4. Pingback: What is an ethical museum? | Museum Questions

  5. There are generally 3 sectors: government, business, and nonprofit. Beginning in the 1920s lenders began to assess credit-worthiness through what are now standard business metrics. Later nonprofits in the late 1970s began using those standard measures in the absence of measures more meaningful to nonprofit mission. Nonprofits need their own measures.

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