starting a museum: advice?
August 28, 2007 12:43 PM   Subscribe

Starting a for-profit museum: Lots of questions inside.

I'm considering starting a small for-profit museum and want to learn as much as I can about starting & running one profitably. So my questions are many:

I understand the difference between for-profit and NP might be academic to the casual visitor, but what have been your experiences visiting museums you understood to be for-profit enterprises (probably were very pop-culture-y, probably had noticeably prominent retailing operations, probably spent a ton on marketing)? The R&R Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Spy Museum in DC are examples, but way bigger than I'm contemplating, so if you've seen any smaller, quirkier ones, I'm particularly interested in those. What did you enjoy about them? What did you feel was not well-done?

How could I learn more about the economics of these types of museums, such as cost of servicing each visitor, typical income via retail vs. via admission, revenue per square foot, etc.?

Where could I get advice on the arrangement of the exhibit area and overall - I guess it's -- interior decorating? I know it's a big mishmash of retail sales, educational, and maybe even restaurant design, but this is very much a bootstrap effort so it has to be done on the cheap and I'm a marketer, not a designer.

Business plan. I know I need one because I want to attract financing -- are there templates for this kind of operation?

Any other thoughts welcome!
posted by luser to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Found this academic paper on The Economics of Museums. Some of it is rather abstract but there seems to be a lot of practical knowledge in it too. There's sections on managing collections, pricing, commercial activities, and museum trends.

The bibliography is quite extensive and could also prove useful.
posted by junesix at 1:17 PM on August 28, 2007

Depending on where you live, some community colleges offer courses in exhibition design and planning, as do some universities. Check under Museum Studies, Anthropology, and History course listings.

I have been to almost no for-profit museums that I liked. They seem to be generally flashy and overdesigned, and short on interesting content (either artifacts or text). The explanatory texts or recordings usually seem highly superficial and with little or no academic authority.

The San Francisco Chronicle's evisceration of "Da Vinci: An Exhibition of Genius" reflects these problems.

It's obviously not impossible to do; I just can't remember ever having seen it done particularly well.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 1:18 PM on August 28, 2007

In my experience, they are small and overpriced. Obviously those go together. The collections are smaller, since they don't get many donations of stuff, and the entrance fee is higher, because they don't get too many donations of money.
posted by smackfu at 1:44 PM on August 28, 2007

When I think of a for-profit museum, I think of a roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere. "See the Biggest Collection of Toy Elephants in Virginia!" Ask yourself honestly: whatever it is you plan to display, is it interesting enough that the punters will give you money for the privilege of looking at it?
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:49 PM on August 28, 2007

Where could I get advice on the arrangement of the exhibit area and overall - I guess it's -- interior decorating?

What you're talking about is called museum exhibit planning and design. There are several issues:

Designing the building, if it's a new building.
Building the building, if it's a new building
Designing the exhibit space.
Developing the exhibits themselves.
Fabricating the exhibits.
Visitor testing (both for proposed exhibits and current exhibits)

Often, these may be handled by different firms that specialize in a piece of the project (even without the "new construction" issue.) Some firms handle multiple aspects.

The problem with for-profits is, as noted above, a lack of academic oversight in the content, or an inflated or tone-deaf understanding of relevance (i.e. it's a vanity project.)

A common problem with non-profits is that the Board of Directors is often made up of stodgy rich folks who get scared of new ideas, or the directors who try to run the museum without proper fundraising for a realistic operations budget. A discussion about non-profit vs profit can be found within this mailing list.
posted by desuetude at 2:20 PM on August 28, 2007

The problem with for-profits is, as noted above, a lack of academic oversight in the content, or an inflated or tone-deaf understanding of relevance (i.e. it's a vanity project.)


I would also expect, that getting well trained, experienced help could cost you extra. Depending on what kind of worker, a for profit museum on one's resume can be less than a good thing.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:42 PM on August 28, 2007

See discussion of for-profit vs non-profit museums here.

By the way, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is structured as a non-profit, not a for-profit. The Spy Museum is a corporately-developed for-profit venture. The vast majority of museums in the US are non-profit, operated by a board of directors and sustained by contributions over and above the "gate". To run a museum on a for-profit basis, income from admissions, store sales, concessions and licensing would have to cover all expenses including startup costs, which is a pretty tall order.

Either way, as you note, you need financing, and it won't be easy to get, especially if you have no experience or knowledge of how museums are operated. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to get even with a highly qualified team and a fantastic business plan.
posted by beagle at 7:17 PM on August 28, 2007

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