July 30, 2013

Museums: Are We Putting Ourselves Out of Business?

We keep hearing the cries from museums and historical sites. We have no money! The economy is terrible! We are getting no donations! But is it us who are putting ourselves out of business?

It sounds ridiculous. Every historical site staff member or volunteer I have ever met worked very hard and was dedicated to their site. So what is the problem?

There are many historical sites trying to be saved today and more and more each year and in this economy, pleas for funding are coming from charities, schools and clubs.  Our historical sites and museums have long relied on the gracious donations. While this has worked in the past, in this economy, people are watching their money and trying to get the best value for their dollar. Your site needs to offer something to the public in exchange for their money.

Many sites tout their tours, their displays and their historical interpreters. I no longer think that this is enough. With so many sites in competition with each other and so much "historical exchange" between sites. Something must be done to set yourself apart.

Many sites agree and have tried to "update" their museums with multimedia displays and movies. These are great for the younger generations, but honestly can't compete with anything the kids are carrying around in their pockets. If anything, multimedia belongs on your website where your guest can get excited for a trip to your site and a little bit extra if they want some more after they visit.

Tours and historical interpreters are great but they are not the draw they used to be. Almost every historical sites offers these services. Just ask a reenactor or living historians how many more events there are compared to only a few years ago! Also, the fact that many site workers work at multiple sites and the historical community fosters an exchange of knowledge that can lead to all sites having similar offerings for guests.

So what can sites do to stay above water?

-Specialize: Is there anything special about your site? Is there something that could be done there that couldn't be done somewhere else? Don't avoid the "exchange" but think if there is a way you could offer something differently than other sites do. It's hard to think outside the box when we are all trying to teach similar things.

-Collaborate: Instead of fighting the competition, is there anyway to join forces? Can you have guests grind mill at a local site and have them bake it at yours? Can you give them a discount for visiting more than one site? Sites in my area have a special booklet and individualized stamps that visitors can "collect" by visiting all of the sites in the area.

-Invest in yourself: I know, there's no money, but if you run bare bones and never put any money back into your site, you will eventually burn out as well as give your site a bad reputation.

-Listen to your visitors: Try to collect as much feedback as possible and use it to get better. Also analyze trends and use them to offer more of what your visitors want and less of what they don't. Some of your offerings may not be worth the money you spend on them. 

-Use your staff and volunteers. I think this is the biggest mistake that many sites make. You may think you are using your staff but there is probably a multitude of things you don't know about each member. You probably have someone collecting tickets or serving food who actually has a hobby that people would pay to learn or see. You might have a worker who loves gardening and would love to create a new gardening program or someone who collects period beer recipes and likes to make them. Your staff can help you differentiate your offerings. Not every site can let visitors smell a variety of period beverages.  

We all want all sites to prosper. Do you have any experiences with this or any tips to help museums or historical sites?


  1. Food! It would be awesome if they offered food. ^_^

    Most of the sites I visit now have Instagram accounts. It's funny.

    1. Are we all thinking of food because I put that photo up? :)

      Actually, food would be awesome but it's hard for a lot of sites as the food has to be cooked in a health department approved way.

      But that would be an awesome differentiation!

    2. Yep, at least I am (and I was hungry). :p

      I can see that, though. They should have a day dedicated to food though. I think Pottsgrove Manor used to.

  2. Events. In a wide variety to appeal to varying tastes. Give a visitor that may otherwise not be interested in attending or on the fence to come out. There needs to be a reason to not only visit, but return. Otherwise, all a patron does is check it off their "been-there-done-that" list and moves on.

    Events need not all be elaborate, or man-hour intensive. In the winter months we brought in people to give informal lectures and presentations and offered them free for visitors. In the warmer months we had book signings from local authors. Of course this was when our large events were not happening, but if nothing else, it kept the museum active and present in the minds of those potential visitors. A quiet museum is a dying museum.

    1. It's great that your site brings in money all year round. Most here don't and they are losing out. People have more time when they are bored in the winter.

    2. Collaborative efforts between museums, even small local ones, sparks interest as well. Pooled resources can make big differences, and can be surprisingly popular.

  3. It's funny that I can combine the two ideas that were put forth into a memory. Fairly recently Stephanie Ann wrote a post about going to Eastern State Penitentiary for their Prison Food Weekend. We had talked about going for a long time, but the thing that actually brought us was the event, which happened to be all about the food. I think it added something to the experience, and I was glad we went. But we may never have gone if we hadn't heard about the event. That was at least two more tickets sold.

    1. It's true. We do this all of the time. We went to the Independence Sea museum when they had a ship we wanted to see.

  4. Bron and I were reading your post. She said, "The board should read her blog." I laughed because my comment was going to be, "You should be on the board of you-know-where." Did you teach camp this year? xox

  5. I did teach camp this year but many of the campers were sad that they wouldn't be cooking with you. :)

    One of the first things they asked was "Where's Jodi!?"


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