Will there be the funds to stay open?
This post has been in the works for quite sometime, following my first take on this highly fascinating subject in September 2020. Back then, my choice of title was a question. I also chose to title my thoughts with a question, yet again. This time around, I choose to answer… with more questions.
Do museums want to stay open and accessible the way they always were if they get the funds to do so? But then again, are museums in search of resilience to weather the storm and come out the least unscatched as possible, or are they in search of resilience to re-invent themselves? But then, what do museums mean when they aspire to remain open and by consequence get back their publics?
What is the situation at this point in time?
Experimentation, more than ever before.
In a recent article on The Art Newspaper penned by Hanna McGivern Chris Michaels (Director of Digital, Communications and Technology at the National Gallery in London), rightly points out that “money can’t be a priority [for digital engagement] simply because there is no market reference” but the “most important thing is learning” and by doing so “the quicker we’ll find out the format, the price, how it works.”
Michaels’ point underpins a paradox. It is certainly the case that museums need and have to experiment to develop the right formulae for digital engagement. That takes time. But museums might not have all the time in the world to experiment, certainly not as much as they would like to. This comment refers exclusively to the digital. What about the in-presence or physical engagement?
There is, indeed, a measure of experimentation going on ranging from participatory to digital and online, but much of what is currently being tried and tested draws from the folds of the museum idea as we have known it for the past years and decades, if not centuries.
We have come to understand the museum idea as being akin to a boxed experience stuffed prevalently with objects and material culture. We can also consider that experience as existing in defined space, understood as the walls of the buildings within which these contents are kept secure. Access to that defined space is regulated by mechanical time, and a narrow definition of time for that matter. Museums operate within set time schedules, clearly defined by parameters of time and space. They curate outreach programmes, exhibitions and experiences set in time and fixed in space. Space and time regulate the museum idea.
What the vast majority of museums have done so far, particularly during the mishaps and setbacks brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, is to cut out digital windows through which that experience can be accessed. The experimentation that Michaels refers to concerns these cut-outs within the historic fabric of the boxed museum experience. We are certainly experimenting with those windows. What type, shape and size of digital windows do we need? Besides, would those digital windows be the solution?
Indeed, space and time regulate how the museum building operates but digital consumption does not happen within time barred parameters. Neither does it depend on the opening or closing hours of the boxed museum experience. Indeed, the possibilities of engagement over time for digital are endless — I dare add, timeless.
That brings me to my point. One of the most precious assets that museums hold, the one which might get them out of the woods over the medium to long term, might be the one they so paradoxically value the least and which is understood, almost exclusively, through the boxed experience version of the museum idea — Time!
What type of funding models might museums then explore through the lens of this thinking?
Let’s look beyond the museum ecology.
Museum funding has been recently covered in a blog written by lindsey_green for Frankly Green + Webb. In her discussion Lindsey makes the case for three funding models that museums have traditionally acknowledged. One of them, described as the “cross-subsidy”, impacts the potential for digital to generate revenue streams directly.
“using core funding and income generated by the in-gallery experiences to deliver online means that quite often online content is dominated by the need to promote or mimic the onsite experience. It reinforces the idea that online is ‘less than’ rather than different. While other sectors see online as a tool to deliver new products and services designed specifically for online, museums have maintained a view that online works in the service of the onsite experience.”
Making online content financially sustainable is certainly a desirable ambition, but the long term goal should be much more about exploring how this can wedge into the bigger picture detailing museum funding models across all experiences.
I choose to explore two overlapping revenue models to pursue. The strength of this type and extent of experimentation does not respond to the museum idea as we know it — not the boxed experience with cut-out digital windows. Rather, this is informed by a museum idea of the future that is liquid and hybrid. This museum idea still lacks a definition but could take the shape and form of a multiplicity of boxed or packaged experiences, given shape in response to a human-centred museum idea, akin to a solar system of planets, moons and asteroids.
Economic Model A. The low-cost travel
I did explore low cost-travel in a piece written for Teo journal, particularly with regards to the future of travelling exhibitions. The business model is, in short, an amalgam of low pricing, point-to-point frequency routes, online ticketing systems, streamlined use of aircraft models, secondary airports usage and highly-productive staff. It is not the business model in its entirety that can suggest analogies with potential practices that museums can incubate at such crucial times. Some of these elements nonetheless do, particularly low pricing and better time management. The yardstick that museums might wish to develop would concern rethinking time through the lens of customer expectations and willingness to visit.
My Question: Can we rethink the museum experience in tiers, with the lowest and most basic experience accessible free of charge and with successive tiers, be they online, in presence or both, against payment? Can museums sell experiences that begin online and continue in presence or vice-versa, with one dependent on the other in varied interconnected ways?
Economic Model B: The supermarket
The low-cost travelling model also also compares to the ways supermarkets operate but with much more potential predictive content to explore. Predictive content is a marketing and manufacturing technique which combines the flexibility and personalisation of custom-made products with the low unit costs associated with mass production.
The comparison between museums and supermarkets is not new. It dates back to 1982, then mentioned as an analogy for museums to understand their publics by John Falk, the Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation and Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University. Falk mentions ‘serious shoppers’, described as those who know exactly what they want, and ‘window shoppers’ who just browse and never seem to commit themselves to buying anything. This is what he wrote back then
“ A museum is like a department store and museum visitors are like shoppers … In a retail store, a customer’s monetary resources , in large measure, determine behaviour; in a museum, time plays the comparable primary role”
The shopping experience is determined by time, irrespective of whether you decide to buy or otherwise, and the money to purchase. It can also happen in presence and online.
My Question: Can museums rethink themselves into resources akin to cultural products, that can be virtually shelved, and available for purchase depending on quality and type? Can such products be purchased to consume in the future, perhaps partly consumed in the present but also serialised, with regular issues or developments to the scripted experience available for purchase over a set period of time ranging from the immediate to the distant future?
These are some of the possibilities I can think of through the lens of the supermarket and the low cost model combined. I have tried to think through the needs at each stage which would lead to choice of experiences that museum consumers might be after. They are by no means comprehensive and only serve the purpose of experimentation.
Experience Journey A. “I visit the main museum building. Don’t need a ticket to visit and can stay as much as I like. Ample time to spare. I choose five specific pre-packaged experiences. One is just a five minute introduction. The other four are longer and one is a how-to hold a mindfulness session. One other experience is available at a discounted price. I go for that too as it’s shorter. I end up spending the whole day at the museum building.”
Experience Journey B. “ I choose to visit the online museum experience, pick and choose what I want to see, and pay to use hi-res photo images to look at the details. I decide to visit the museum building and felt quite at ease roaming around thanks to the online experience. At one point I pick up a high-end presentation about techniques. That was very enjoyable. Time is running out. I only have 15 more minutes to spare and decide to go for a timed packaged experience which is an introduction to the main gallery space. I decide to return to the museum building but not for now. In the meantime I’ll go back to the online experience more frequently and download pre-packaged experiences from that portal.”
Experience Journey C. “I decide to visit the museum building but I only have 30 minutes. I choose to go for one packaged experience, including meditation music to match the painting of my choice. I decide to return but in the meantime, I’ll use the museum online experience to pick and choose the works I would like to see and download related content to prepare ahead of my visit. In the meantime I’m going for the museum online game experience that is free of charge and pick the rewards, one of which is a specially discounted designer item, from the museum building at a later stage.”
Would you have other experiences to explore and recommend to the museum of the future?