In the online sphere, there are discussions about whether museums should be operated as a business. Some great points are made on the “pro-business” side: museums need income to keep the lights on; getting traffic through the doorway is necessary to continue generating income both from earned revenue and from funders or donations; museums need to keep working towards their mission; museums should weigh risk with benefit. Museums need revenue. In reality, they want as much or more since they have expenses and need to be able to survive.
Businesses measure success via quarterly revenue for investors. Both of these have their uses, but neither serves the better good. However, companies aren’t liable to the common good, whereas museums are.
The Problem: Assessing Success through Visitor Numbers
A number of museums are requested to count and publish the number of visitors every quarter. For instance, students who participate in a 10-week class run by museum staff visit the museum 10 times. Does each student, over the span of the full course, count as a single visitor? Or do they count as 10 for the purposes of traffic? An independent customer that walks through the doorway twice in a two-week interval is counted as two people. A family who attends workshops four evenings over the course of the year count as four families. Therefore, museums need to experiment with different methods for measuring success. Considering methods such as staff retention and rate of expansion should be utilised as well as visitor numbers. Museums are built to survive and not be closed down due to insufficient funds, therefore generating a sustainable business-type model is crucial.
Museums have an impressive ability for profitable income streams and cost saving measures that most ‘non-profit organisations’ can only dream about. They deliver on government contracts and create income from a display showcase, shops, cafes, educational programs, registration, hire of facilities, film shoots and by being fundraisers. Museums are also experts in working with volunteers, and collaborative working in that they know the environmental consequences of their activities and also have initiated work on power saving.
Museums have a solid sense of why they exist. They aim to create actions and income flow that matches their aims and comply with the core values of the public mission statement. The social capital that emerges in their work and the social advantage they deliver epitomises financial, social and environmental sustainability. Many museums embrace sustainability in their wider context by working together with the local community in developing environmental practices which parallel their social responsibility.
Museums display a balanced combination of financial, social, cultural and educational gains. This is an example of complex product development and social business brand management at its very best. Indeed, it’s apparent that museum business models are characterised by the sort of innovation, diversity and robustness that ensures financial sustainability and powerful social obligation.
Museums are places in which people find quality and a depth of experience where they are encouraged, respected and challenged. The museum experience is one of well-being which provides calm enrichment through its art showcases and exhibition installations. It is unique, improving and heart warming, providing value for money.
Because of these factors the sector is trusted and its visitors confer respectability for its products, and wider service offerings. The public’s affection towards museums is an extraordinary business occurrence and one that few sectors enjoy with their customers.
The museum’s business model is based on sustainability and is a classic illustration of the successful early adoption of the social enterprise model. The museum industry should include ‘social enterprise business advice’ to their range of products and services to enhance sustainability.