Promotional collection of Vienna’s museums.

10 Ways Museums Should Start Following in 2015

This is a presentation of my conclusions about future of museums within contemporary trends. This is not a scientific neither academic article, but just a catalog of ideas, which combine entrepreneurship, sharing economy and social purpose.

As a 20-years-old, I worked as an exhibit guide, on the exhibition that was the most emblematic held that year, in the small European country called Croatia. Much younger than other guides and staff members, I was feeling great while motivating diverse audiences to listen to my guidance and letting them have a lot of fun. Museums are my vocation and when I travel, visiting museums is one of the most important things for me.

My principles in museums are very clear — I don’t try to get admission tickets for lower price, and since I’m not a student anymore, I don’t lie about that. I pay the full price, for 5, 7, 10 or 15 euros. Also, each museum I visit makes me think about more ideas for museums — many times in positive ways, but many times also in quite negative ways. There are no many fairly good museums at the moment — good in the way to be interesting to wider audiences than just to people like me.

This article is the official start of my new project called — Fun Museums! Here I would like to say which ways museums should start following during this year, and make big steps forward for their prosperous future.

1) Invite young professionals, creatives and volunteers to participate

I know, there are so many problems with funding, as museums are some of the first victims of austerity. I know that it’s even difficult to have volunteers, due to complicated bureaucracy, especially in the South of Europe, which is my region. I even know that some curators don’t want anyone to mess up with their way of working. But little steps might be the beginning of a big change, do you agree with me?

It’s enough to make an effort to apply for some extra funding, or for a contest, or, if inside the European Union member states, for community funds. There is a lot of space for creativity. People want to volunteer, and creative professionals may do their work for lower prices, or even for free, if getting some promotion. People have ideas; we just need to give them opportunity to make them reality.

Now, what we should do and how to start? First of all, we should think about how museums can become more sustainable institutions and create their own funds. Museums should be very, very audience-friendly. When saying audience, I mean people. No Academy members. No 0,5% of museum enthusiasts. No professionals from the field that a museum provide (for instance, art historians if it’s a museum of art). Just real people.

When some real people participate in audience development for museums, other real people will start coming to museums.

2) Grow their open communities, “swarms”, embrace sharing economy

Now, I promise one thing. This article has nothing to do with lessons of digital marketing, content marketing, social media or storytelling. These topics are for other articles. Here I just want to tell you that these promotion techniques might be highly useful when we want to make some dreams reality, but they should only be used when you have clear steps and objectives defined. Before completing our strategy and defining our mission, we should not say “we need to do something with our Facebook and Twitter pages”. Only when strategy exists, the joy of being on social media starts.

This section is a kind of continuation of the previous one, but now it’s not only about taking advantage of local and known reality, but about embracing other, unknown, new realities.

Sure, online communities were somehow impossible before the so-called Web 2.0 and social media tools. But now we need to ask ourselves “which communities” or “communities for what” rather than “which network(s) to use”. Have you heard about the Brotherhood 2.0? I found this story, and learned to understand it in the great essay written by Michael Peter Edson, entitles as “Dark Matter”. Such a simple idea grew into a worldwide community and made lots of social improvements possible. But without such a powerful idea and concept, a mere presence on YouTube would mean nothing. So for museums it’s especially important to remember one simple rule — have a clear strategy for community management, or don’t use social media at all.

I’ll mention the case study of the Swedish Pirate Party (which now works in most of European countries) and their founder Rick Falkvinge, as their mindset may seem controversial. But since he wrote a book about his success, calling his community a “swarm”, we can completely understand why such ideas succeed. Sharing economy can be more powerful than traditional structures, which are usually too inflexible. “Swarms” are all about sharing economy!

A key aspect of the swarm is that it is open to all people who want to share in the workload. Actually, it is more than open — everybody in the whole world is encouraged to pick work items off a public list, without asking anybody’s permission, and just start doing them. There is no recruitment process. Anybody who wants to contribute to the goal, in his or her own way and according to his or her own capacity, is welcome to do so. This contrasts sharply with hiring processes at traditional organizations, where people have to pass some kind of test in order to start working for the organization.

So they started with a controversial idea, with values that we may consider that have no values, but now they have a community, and a mission, which justifies the basic objectives. Personally, I don’t agree completely with this political party, but I do understand what is a swarm, and I can even accept some reasons for this activism — Copyright is a highly important value, but its rules should be reviewed these days, to adapt to digital realities. I even consider that well developed online communities are a kind of swarm.

So many ways of interpretation — so many possibilities!

photo credit: Adrian McEwen on Flickr

So let online communities develop, the way you think that they should, change the way if necessary (not too much), make your museum recognizable. Spread your most valuable assets through the universe of information and knowledge, communicate with your audience, share, share, share.

Museums should be brands. Although some readers may find this word inappropriate, I insist using that word. Brand is not only about logos — brand is a set of values, and branding is a strategy to become relevant. This topic is for another article, but here it’s mentioned, because branding and identity ideas can be crowdsourced.

3) Create their own strategy for adopting technology

So many things are said about how museums should adopt technology. It is not a complex philosophy — museums should adopt technology, but be careful when doing it, the way I already said in the previous chapter, about social media.

Although museums usually struggle trying to balance their expenses and get sufficient funding, it’s quite common that people who work in a kind of marketing/public relations/content creation department in museums have no clear idea what should they do. Most of them started working there without getting previous experience in agencies, private firms or corporations, when they should think strategically and get things done with a result. Instead, most of these professionals in museums continue applying outdated practices, because there is no urge for results in numbers.

So, what happens? We see museums introducing their own mobile apps, for instance. How these apps are useful? Once I asked this question, not in a museum, but in a tourist board where situations are mostly similar. Nobody knew to answer me that questions. Someone sold them that app, they accepted, trying to be “modern”.

Why it’s not good? First, because technology applied without purpose is wasted money. Second, because there could be better ideas to apply and get more revenue than by having an app. Then, there is a practical issue. You should have a wifi network in your museum to enable visitors to download your app. Do you have it, and can you afford it? Maybe only if you have powerful sponsors.

In my honest opinion, technology should be applied

  • through better exhibit design and display inside museums;
  • investing in better audio guides or even interactive screens;
  • getting a better website and online presence…

…and anyway, all of these steps should be done after considering objectives and possible outcomes. However, we should not ban mobile apps, but maybe consider making a broader app, joining several museums, or all the museums of a city or country. Other option is: create a very, very creative, unique app. Advertise it, and get people install it before they even come to visit a museum. A lot of thinking, effort and funding is necessary for such result.

4) Introduce more flexible opening hours

In most of European countries there is a special event called Long Nights of Museums. The event was first organized in Berlin in 1997, and by 2014 the event has impressive results, regarding its timing, animation, workshops and the spirit.

As in most of countries, regions and cities such event happens once in a year, there is a lot of space to organize smaller events of this kind or simply rethink if the current opening hours policy is the most adequate. Maybe it’s not, because your target is at work when the museum is opened. Maybe you close on weekends, and most of people could visit your museum on Saturday. Maybe you open at 8am and spend the first two working hours seeing no visitor, and close at 4pm, with need to send away your curious visitors.

Generally, if your museum is situated in a popular tourist destination, it should not close before 9pm during summer and 8pm during winter, unless it’s one of the world’s largest museums, such as Louvre, Prado or Vatican Museum. These museums, for being traditionally well-established and famous, have that luxury of creating their own policies, but other museums should take advantage of these common policies, and open their doors for more visitors until night. When I was in Paris in 2007 every museum closed at 6pm except the Centre Pompidou. I went there and spent valuable 2 hours discovering it.

To change your opening hours, you don’t need to keep museum opened more hours; you can reorganize the hours. You can have different opening hours for working days and weekend; for summer and winter. Your audience will love to see a museum which is opened for more hours during their free time.

5) Practice a more market-oriented price policy

“Money is not a problem, because there is no money” A common Croatian proverb.

photo credit: Celso Lemes on Flickr

Uh, this may be another controversial topic in this article, but it needs to be here. I confess I don’t cultivate any neo-liberal doctrine, but I also cannot accept any “neo-Marxism” ideology or “communal property should be free” rhetoric. Money should come from somewhere, it does not grow on the trees. This section is not only about admission fees; this is about turning museums into the entrepreneurial systems. A lot of research has been made about these possibilities, for instance the MuseumNext conference is soon launching a platform for museum entrepreneurship.

First of all, museums should introduce the possibility of online ticket purchase, which should be cheaper than on-site purchase. Also, there should be more options, such as simple visit or guided visit. In a more advanced, or “sophisticated” business model, museums can give first minute or last minute prices, since these practices emerged in the travel industry. A kind of this approach is already practiced in the London’s Design Museum.

Additionally, events held in museums. Most of museums organize some. They should rather organize paid workshops and conferences, than making these events free of charge. My masters thesis was about museum marketing, and I did an internship in a small museum in Portugal. People I met there confessed that free events do not get enough relevance — for instance when people are asked to register for a free event, 100 of them register, and only 10 of them eventually show up.

Why it happens? Is it possible that people don’t take free events so seriously? Sure it is the case. Such activities and events are not the same things as a simple admission; when people find out that admission is free of charge, they will decide to enter. But if they find an interesting event on your website or social media channel, they will consider coming, register “just in case” because it’s said to be required, and show up only if they remember, feel in mood, or have time for it at the moment.

Museum staff is very knowledgeable, for a simple reason that museums are sources of knowledge. Their effort should be charged in a respectable way, and attendants will know to appreciate it. Again, marketing is important, to spread the word about these initiatives, and if strategy is fairly good, ROI is guaranteed.

6) Prefer concept over object

This topic was the nucleus of my masters thesis. As I found out that in museum description commonly appear things such as “concept-based museum” or “museum based on its pieces”, I noticed that there could be a clear division between object-based and concept-based museum.

Three years after introducing this approach, I don’t think about this division anymore. It’s true, traditional and classical museums are object-oriented because they have their collections, while contemporary museums are like contemporary art — created around a purpose, an idea, a concept. Now it’s important to notice that everything in world goes concept-based. People look for things that are concept-based.

Now, what about traditional museums? Museums of fine arts? Museum of science or natural history? Local ethnographic museums? No worries for them. They are free to adopt some concept-oriented approach, in line with their purpose and objectives. I was in Berlin recently and I visited the Altesmuseum, one of several museums situated on the famous Museumsinsel. This is one of the world’s most valuable collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman art from all the periods of history of these civilizations, so it’s a highly object-based museum, by default. However, this museum already created concepts for visitors to have a stronger idea about these objects and context they represent.

On the left picture you can get some impressions about a Roman Villa Rustica and its gardens. On the right picture, there is a dinner table made up with original pieces.

This museum, by nature, has only objects. But when composed, these objects make concepts.

Even the smallest and the most underfunded museums can make such concepts to attract their visitors’ attention!

7) Encourage their staff to interact with visitors

Here I’ll continue around my recent trip to Berlin, where I also visited the Humboldt Box. Humboldt University and Foundation are well-known institutions, but Humboldt Box? The word “box” sounds like something very small and secret. No surprises, it is small and secret, it’s architecture is appealing but nobody understands immediately what it is about, and which kind of museum it is. It’s situated on the Museumsinsel as well. I saw a huge construction site behind it, much bigger than this little box. Sincerely, I did not know anything about that building in construction.

Being curious, I decided to visit that museum. I paid 3 euros for entrance. It’s the regular price. I went upstairs and saw a maquette which looked like the building being constructed behind. Around that, there were many screens, old photos on the walls, drawings and sketches on the walls, and I got a little bit confused.

Until a staff member approached me, asking me something in German. When I indicated that I’m a foreigner, she started talking in English, and showed me practically everything in that room. And I got the point.

The Humboldt Box is a temporary “preview” museum, placed there to show the structure and purpose of the future Humboldt Forum, now the construction site, due to open in 2019, to be a new museum on the Museumsinsel, and a virtual reconstruction of the Berlin Schloss, the royal palace of Prussian kings and German emperors, which was damaged in the II World War and completely erased afterwards — she told me this, and many other interesting things.
This simple slogan indicates the whole purpose that the future museum Humboldt Forum will have.

Museums are places to learn and have fun, without deep philosophy. Museums show how history is important, and how certain things are good to know. But even when interpreting very serious topics, museums are supposed to be fun. Back to my museum job as a guide, at that time, I replied to many questions. I had groups which were not interested in the museum at all, school groups for instance. They were only waiting to the visit to end, to go out and eat sandwich and have a coffee. I tried to animate them with stories about food, drinks or sex. These topics are everywhere, we just need to use them. Me and my colleagues motivated so many school groups, to become passionately interested in the exhibition!

So museum staff is essential to make visitors happy. In the mentioned museum where I did my internship, the main guide was a 50-year-old lady, and she was loved by children, their teachers and parents.

8) Allow taking photos inside museum

In the section 6, I put two pictures from the Berlin’s Altesmuseum. I asked if it’s allowed when I bought the ticket. I got the answer that it was okay, if without flash.

This is one more topic where we need to change our state of mind. Here it is, another approach to the sharing economy, allowing us to share our experiences, create a participatory society, and knowledge-based economy. We already came to the conclusion that museums are sources of knowledge, so they should allow their visitors to share these sources, as it is described in the essay written by Merete Sanderhoff, entitled “Wanna play?”

There are only two reasons why attitudes towards photography in museums are so negative. First of them is about flash, that can possibly damage artwork, and that’s a real problem, because all these old pieces are highly sensitive, without doubt. To fix this problem, you can ban flash photography. The second problem is much deeper.

The problem is about copyright speculation. It’s about ownership, right to use the resources, possibility that people who see pictures online will not visit a museum if they can easily, with just few clicks, find out what is inside. Well, let me ask you one question. Will people go to Paris anymore, if they already easily find the photos of Eiffel Tower, the Triumphal Arch and the Mona Lisa on a blog or social media, in books or in magazines? Got the point? :-)

In the section 2 I already referred that copyright issues should be reviewed and updated to these moments we are living. I think copyright is highly important as an attribution; the open source society is based on sharing, modifying, reproducing and updating — everything we do, everything we create is based on something that someone else had started or even created previously. Most of museums tell this kind of stories — that Renaissance period was succeeded by the Mannerism, the way that Manneirism learned a lot from the Renaissance, but appeared a kind of drastic reaction. Then Baroque evolved from the Mannerism. Sure? All the books about art say which artist was influenced by which artist.

The same way, we can introduce a new way of thinking about sharing a museum, with diverse assets in photography, video, infographics, essays, blog posts. People will not stop going to museums, but they will start going more to museums if they are well informed about what this museum really has inside.

9) Have a good museum shop and cafe/restaurant

A lot of my suggestions are around experience-based approach to museums. Alongside with a museum visit, your visitors become completely satisfied and fulfilled when they can sit down in a beautiful cafe/restaurant with a good offer. Also, I already mentioned the importance of brand in museums. So, what if the museum shop sells branded product? Many of those famous museums already have a such a thing, but I need to say that most of them do it on a similar way. In less famous museums there is a space for creativity!

Mmmmm…. yummy!

Again — Humboldt Box. This was my lunch in the museum’s restaurant! And guess what? I got a coupon for 2 euros of discount, on my admission ticket! That’s something called — creative idea!

10) Museum as an event venue

Museum have a potential to be great stages. Not only for theater or filming, but also for important moments in someone’s life. What about weddings, birthday parties, or business ceremonies in museums?

Some museums are situated in gorgeous historical buildings, some of them are amazing masterpieces of contemporary architecture. Some museums have great gardens or views (picture bellow). Imagine you can have your special moments on such place, and it is a museum?

Garden around the Gulbenkian museum, Lisbon.

After all, I just want to highlight one important fact about future museums — they have opportunity to become conference venues. Not only to organize their own events, but to rent their space(s) to third-party organizers, that will make everything they can, to show that the venue they selected is perfect. This year Digital Heritage conference is held in Granada, Spain. Their choices for venues are simply wonderful!

This article is just the beginning of my research, which will be made with Fun Museums! project. I recommend you to follow our Facebook and Twitter channel and get up to date with new ideas and conclusion about museums.

The following books served for inspiration:

Don Tapscott: Grown up Digital

Rick Falkvinge: Swarmwise — The Tactical Manual to Changing the World

Ross Parry: Recoding the Museum

Ylva French/Sue Runyard: Marketing and Public Relations for Museums, Galleries, Cultural and Heritage Attractions

…and many others, even fiction, were useful to think. This just the beginning, many other ideas and experiences are about to come!

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