The Ten Principles of Museum Entrepreneurship
by Erik Schilp
In 2006, in collaboration with Wedgwood, the British artist Clare Twomey placed 4000 small birds made of typical Jasper Blue all around the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She wanted to show that value and collection are not necessarily determined by museums or traditions. What happened was that all the birds were stolen by members of the public within five hours. This was indeed part of the plan. The collection lives on, but in the homes of many, where the birds undoubtedly have permanent pride of place. They are a Trophy, as was the name of this most famous of Twomey’s projects.
Picture: Clare Twomey
Dream the future
What is your big visionary goal for 2020? Where would the museum like to be in terms of impact, visitors, community and visibility? Which steps are needed to get to that point,and what measures and actions do you need to take to achieve your dream?
Institutional strategy versus strategy of content
A museum is accustomed to planning ahead when compiling exhibitions and programs, but the core of its story, and the relevance of that story to a changing society, requires a more fundamental strategy. Considering our rapidly changing world, how likely is it that your organization will survive if it continues to look and behave exactly like it does today?
From: Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.
Business versus Museum
To your visitors you are a museum, but in every other aspect you should be a business. It is important that everybody in the organization is aware of that, and knows what the implications are. An entrepreneur at the helm of an organization is not enough. The whole team needs to subscribe to this concept and the business strategy of the museum. This requires constant training and communication.
The single most important entrepreneurial task of every museum is to make its story visible. The value of heritage is determined by its visibility and it therefore needs to be lived and touched. Visibility also creates relevance. Relevance is paramount for attracting funding and visitors. Maximum visibility cannot be achieved within the walls of the museum. It needs to be done in the public domain. The story needs to be out there, not just the museum name, a particular artefact or the collection. This is not about marketing or publicity. It is about changing the focus from a small and contained group of visitors to the larger audience of our society.
Badge of quality
Museum as a brand automatically implies quality. People expect museums to be serious places of excellence. A commercial business would be envious of this kind of starting position.
But noblesse oblige. It means that every aspect of the institution needs to be professional and distinctive. Is the restaurant one of the most attractive of the city? Is the museum shop one of the best gift shops in town? Are they integrated into the vision and mission? Are the staff helpful and courteous? The effect of serving the best coffee in town cannot be underestimated as a key factor in the success of the museum.
In 2014, Dutch photographer Koos Breukel made portraits of the last remaining patients and staff of the Valerius clinic, a psychiatric institution in Amsterdam that was about to close. Rather than opting for a museum, Breukel displayed the photographs in the empty clinic.
It was an emotional reminder of bygone days and the sorrow felt. Breukel’s insistence on not specifying who had been a patient and who had been a member of staff made it all the more clear that we are all a bit mad.
Picture: Koos Breukel
Knowing me, knowing you
Effective entrepreneurs build strategies based on facts, experience and sensible intuition, not on tradition, random research or wishful thinking. The traditional soft approach to museum strategy needs to be supported by relevant hard data. The data provided to funders, however relevant to them, are rarely useful in an effective museum strategy. It is vital to understand how to use and translate the key data of your institution, and to implement them effectively in the strategy of the museum. The same applies to the information about your visitors. It is not enough to know who they are and where they come from. Knowing them means truly understanding their expectations, values and habits.
Real versus digital
The more people who feel they are co-owners of a museum, the more ambassadors and free publicity it will have. This is nothing new. But this relationship needs to be a real, tangible one, and not just a digital connection. A Facebook friend is not necessarily a real friend. Ask yourself questions like: What can people bring home from the museum collection? What can visitors leave behind? What can they contribute? In which way is the museum personalized for each visitor? How do you involve your direct neighbours in your museum? And what do you offer the business community? What does your museum do to latch on to actualities and to the known common fields of interest of your target audience?
In a collaboration between the Zuiderzee Museum and W139, a contemporary art institute in Amsterdam, Dutch artist Zoro Feigl created three magnificent new pieces of art, using so-called ‘orphans of the museum’ – objects that will never leave the deep dark catacombs of museum storage. He not only gave these items a new life, he converted them into an experience rather than distant objects of admiration. The boats became a lighthouse, a set of ropes became a tempestuous sea, and a series of compasses lost their direction through the intervention of one simple magnet.
Picture: Erik & Petra Hesmerg
Disruptive innovation versus sustaining innovation
Traditional institutions like museums often choose to innovate within their existing market. Considering the relatively small amount of people who visit a museum, this means all of them are fishing in relatively small pond, while there is a huge lake full of fish nobody focuses on. A successful museum will devise a strategy that provides a healthy balance between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation, the type that creates new markets and value systems. Not only will this be more successful, but it will ultimately also bring necessary changes to the sector.
The next generation
Museums always see the importance of focusing on young people, but they are not always successful in creating an attractive and dynamic place for the generations to come. This is partly because the focus on the day-to-day running of the museum consumes all the time available for planning and strategy. But it would also require changing the course in such a way that existing visitors might feel alienated. Nevertheless, in order to grow with the generations, a balance needs to be struck in pleasing the old and attracting the new. How many visitors are you prepared to lose if you could gain a whole new audience?
From: An Interview with F. Scott Fitzgerald by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Formulating a budget seems simple: maximize your income, control and minimize your cost and build some reserves for a rainy day. Still, there are many ways to achieve this. On the one hand, buildings, staff, production cost of exhibitions and even the cost for security, marketing and IT can be shared while, on the other hand, the systematic application for grants and subsidies, and the professional approach to achieve a high level of corporate sponsoring can significantly increase income. Basically, the budgetary process is as creative as any other process. It should therefore be subject to strategy sessions where insiders and outsiders compete for the smartest idea in the room.
A healthy mix
Most museums spend considerably more on infrastructure and staff than on the collection and programs. The museum that owns a Mona Lisa will have sufficient income from visitors to allow itself to live in a palace. Others might find they are living above their means. Who pays for housing and staff is relevant, but it is not the core business of a museum to own property or to provide employment. A healthy and responsible budgetary mix is 25% infrastructure, 25% staff, 40% collection, exhibitions and programs, and 10% marketing. An interesting mental exercise is answering the question: What do you need to do to achieve this mix?
Building or no building
Let’s agree that ‘museum’ is a verb, not a noun. To museum is to acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit our heritage. In order to conserve a collection, a dedicated physical space is needed. All the other tasks can be fulfilled in shared space, public space or temporary space. To many museums, their building is part of their story. To many others, the story can be told in many ways, in many spaces. The owned building could be shared, but rather than just expecting people to come to you, it might be much more effective to take the story to where the people are.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again.
Fail again. Fail better.
There are many ways of telling the museum’s story, offline and online. Many of them require guts, as they are breaking new ground. Innovation without risk does not exist. Learning without failure is merely academic. An entrepreneurial museum has a panel of experts who collect ideas and proposals for innovation from staff and members of the public and weigh their importance, relevance and risk. The best proposals deserve a chance, and we could all learn from the process and its results.
Just imagine what the world could look like when art and heritage are all around us and when the stories they tell are part of us. Night Windows (1928) and Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper just off Broadway in New York.
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Erik Schilp (Sydney, 1967) is an international innovator, connector and strategist. He specialises in sustainable business solutions in the arts, cultural and heritage sectors.
Erik started his career in London as Senior Marketing Manager at the American consultancy firm Strategic Decisions Group. Also in the UK, he restructured companies in the theatre and film industry and he founded his own marketing and PR agency. In Barcelona he developed 24-hour restaurants and art spaces. On arrival in the Netherlands Schilp became director of the Diaghilev Festival (2005) and from 2006 he worked as director of the Zuiderzee Museum. In 2009 he was appointed Director of the National Museum of History of the Netherlands. Most recently Erik developed a concept for a language museum in Leiden and works on strategy development for Museumplein Limburg and for GVK’s Jaya He Museum in Mumbai.
Erik is founder and partner of the art platform De Gulle Ekster and created Cards for Culture and Wie is de leraar? (Who’s a teacher?) with Jasper Visser. He is also chairman of the Dutch National Portrait Gallery and member of the supervisory board at Stadsherstel Amsterdam NV.