Why museums are not “not for profit”

This article is a fun piece of read for anyone who cares about museums. The cover photo features a cool product from the Kunstahus Zurich.

The idea that museums are not for profit is still present as new suggestions for museum definitions were shared by the International Committee of Museums – ICOM.

Apart from a number of buzzwords that sound cool to old school audiences but unclear to wider population, there is still a stubborn idea that museums have some “dignity” which means that money talks are not allowed in the conversation.

On my Twitter feed, and also on my personal Facebook, I have criticised these “not for profit” arguments, and while some people agreed with me, others were showing disagreement with comments that had nothing to do with the basic idea I want to suggest.

About that “not for profit” mindset

I am aware that there is a huge gap between the world of business and the world of, let’s say, culture, heritage, humanitarian work, etc. The world of business is known for being profit-driven. Is it something bad or wrong? As long as it’s ethical, there is nothing wrong with that. The unethical business are not the topic of this article.

Still, many museum professionals will say that keeping museums “not for profit” preserves some “public benefit”. I don’t really understand that idea, even when they say that “public interest” means “no money shared with shareholders”. This is another completely foolish argument, because, when in the world museums will create the amount of profit to make some shareholder earn fortunes?

Also, “buying shares” of a museum would never be like buying shares of Apple or Nike. Profitable museums could rather work as small businesses or even social enterprises. The point is to create business plans for museums, get investors, create a turnover, and pay off the investors – how? It’s up to agreements between the museum and the investors.

Museum “emotions”

There is an idea that money and profits are necessary evils, and museums should save themselves by staying away from that. The romantic view about museum is somewhat elitist. First of all, museums can get donations, but these donations have another price – sponsors shape the image of things they fund.

If a museum is organising a big (blockbuster) exhibition and a bank or a telecom company is a sponsor, the logos of that sponsor will likely be anywhere. Is it still “money as the necessary evil”? Most museum professionals would say they have no “alternative choices”. Really?

So what about creating your own powerful brand instead? Rather than being dominated by a telecom logo or bank commercials, why not profiting from your own business?

Inviting people to museums

Even in that “not for profit” museum situation, the museum professionals / staff get their salaries. More often than not they complain that these salaries are not high enough. They will likely complain that some people get paid so much for just kicking some kind of ball in some sports arenas, while they finished so many schools and earn so little. Really?

I wonder if they understand that people want to come to these sports arenas and see these athletes who bring so much joy to their fans. Can museums bring an equal amount of joy to their visitors?

The answer is: of course they can!

The thing is, it’s up to museum professionals to invite people to visit museums. In the case of museums as enterprises, it would a part of the business plan. Inviting people to visit museums would be a strategy, and not just a sporadical result of individual passion or inspiration.

Appealing museums

Very few people will disagree that museums are important. However, most of them will rarely think about museums, especially the local ones, the ones they have near their home. A few days ago, I asked a question to my followers about the most beautiful museum they have ever visited.

I received around 100 replies in total (including chats in replies), and most of the answers were British Museum, Louvre, Solomon Guggenheim, or Hermitage. While i understand that the moment we visit this kind museums is unforgettable (I visited Louvre and Solomon Guggenheim and I remember the feeling), I wonder if anyone could see some local museums, preferably around the places they live, as something very beautiful.

And there is no concept of “local patriotism” in that idea. It doesn’t need to be about local history and culture you need to “love” for living there. It should be all about the idea of spending a quality time in a nice, appealing museum.

I know, it can be vicious circle – a lack of interest for local museums lead to the lack of initiative from museum professionals and vice versa.

How could museums profit from anything?

There are tons of possibilities, but above all, it’s about planning. Most museums have museum shops, but very few have any data or research about commercial success from these shops. In many museum shops I didn’t see any simple but attractive things average visitors would buy. Catalogues, designed bags, and fine jewellery are perfectly fine, but often too expensive or inconvenient for an average visitor to buy.

Museum profit - museum shops
A piece of Byzantine textile in the Bode Museum, Berlin
Museum profit - museum shops
The pattern applied to a range of convenient products for the museum shop.

Special events or guided tours are another opportunity, but visitor-friendly ideas for them often interferes with traditional “museum professional values”. For instance, if you want to create a marketing campaign for an event in which certain topics will be presented a funky way, some curators might feel offended because nothing from their day job is a part of that campaign.

Curators write texts. Let’s be honest. In most cases, these texts are not appealing to children, teenagers, elderly people without university degrees, or foreign tourists who know little about the particular topic.

So the shift towards commercially successful museums requires some changes in mindsets. That’s why it’s not enough to say “museums can generate income but not profits because it would give money to shareholders”. There are alternatives to classical business models, you know.

At the end, the money from public/government funds should not be the only way museums cover their expenses. Museums are too important for that. This article is just a very short explanation of the whole thing, made not only for museum professionals, but for any person who cares about museums.

I am looking forward to developing my ideas about sustainable and efficient funding models for museums. This is only the beginning.

Museum Profit - museum programs
Demonstration of traditional paper manufacturing at the Paper Museum in Fabriano, Italy

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