A few months ago, I wrote about The Business of Museums, essentially arguing that museums need to identify ways to measure value other than income and visitor numbers. This stemmed from a lengthy discussion on linkedin, in which a colleague argued, “Are there reasons to mount an exhibition that doesn’t appeal to many or that appeals to people that can’t afford to come? Perhaps, but what would be the point? The point of exhibitions is numbers in the door (why have it if no one wants to see it?) even if the exhibition is free….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).”
The Wheels O’ Time Museum is in my hometown of Peoria — which, while not well-known as a museum mecca, currently boasts two museums, a zoo and a wildlife park, a botanic garden, and a historical society; a children’s museum is opening here in 2015. Wheels O’ Time is a privately owned, for-profit museum. As implied by its name, cars form the heart of the Museum’s collection, although they also collect clocks, musical instruments, and historical artifacts, and offer quirky displays like a barbershop quartet and a tiny motorized circus. I know very little about cars, but here are some examples:
Most of the cars do not belong to the museum. They belong to local collectors, who pay the museum to store their cars. Along with the cars on display, the museum stores additional cars during the winter, when it is closed to the public. By combining the functions of display and storage, Wheels O’ Time remains a profitable enterprise: storage fees and visitor admission fees ($6.50 per adult, $3.50 per child) are sufficient to fund the museum. Since its inception in 1977 the Museum has been able to balance income and expenditures. Wheels O’ Time operates with a paid staff of two, supported by about 50 volunteers. They are open six months a year, and during that time welcome about 7,000 visitors. Last year, visitors came from 49 states and nearly 30 countries. They are listed as the first attraction for Peoria on TripAdvisor. The museum has even grown at a slow but steady pace – from one building to four, diversifying collections and exhibitions as they have grown. They take on projects based on the availability of interested and capable volunteers. They are only now involved in what Bragg considers their first fundraising effort, to restore a 1931 Ahrens Fox fire truck – and this fundraising effort is being spearheaded not by the museum, but by a local firefighters group. If you are a for-profit museum that makes money off of storing large objects, how do you measure success? Not based on visitor numbers or income: the site manager, Marcia Johnson, was unable to tell me how many visitors the museum receives, and had to direct me to a volunteer for that information. While she would not discuss income, the museum does not set financial growth as a goal; rather, it looks to balance income and expenditures. When asked how she measures the success of the Museum, Marcia answered with this list:
- the museum is extremely friendly
- we enjoy our visitors
- we enjoy our artifacts
- we are able to maintain things, have nice working conditions, and draw volunteers who enjoy it.
She added, “Of course we want people to come and of course we want to stay in the black, but our stock holders realize when they invest that it’s not going to be a money-making proposition. It’s something that serves the community, and is a place for people to store their treasures. It’s a labor of love – the people who work here love the artifacts, love the history, love showing them to people.” I’m inspired by Marcia’s response. Maybe this reveals how new I am to the Midwest, and small museums (I moved here from New York City last year) – are there many museums around that would describe their goals in this way?
In one of my more emphatic moods I would argue that non-profits acting like businesses is ruining many of our cultural treasures, as well as hospitals, K-12 education, and universities. Perhaps this is why I was so fascinated by the Wheels O’ Time Museum, which is a privately owned business with shareholders, and still a model for how non-business-related priorities can drive practice.