Last week, I met with a company desperate to work with museums and they wanted me to help them put together a strategy. As I looked at their products and services, I realised they had an great offer but I found the first question I had to ask was – Why? New business opportunities, he said. I raised my eyebrows. It seemed so long since I heard of an organisation looking at the museum sector as a business opportunity.
The fears over finance this year started with a deeply pessimistic view on visitor numbers, then moved to removal of corporate sponsorship and finally the removal of funding for large capital projects. All of this, on top of the usual challenges that accompany museums finding money, and things stopped looking so rosy. Well, it turns out the pendulum hasn’t completely swung away from the sector. As ALVA reports visitor numbers are up, corporate sponsorship has been trickier to come by but is still there and we now hear the British Museum and Tate will receive the required cash to build. Belts are still having to be tightened and priorities will have to be made (read Nick Poole’s pre-emptive action). Anyone could be forgiven for taking a look at an industry in flux and looking to walk away, the risks being just too high. So moving into the sector now would seem to be sitting there with a commercial version of a cyanide pill between your teeth.
New ways of talking
Straight after my meeting, I went to MuseumNext. The conference was very interesting, but it was a combination of the structure and the process that inspired me most. Rather than starting with a platform (i.e. handhelds for beginners) or issues (i.e. sustainability of collections), this conference chose to start with a challenge - how do you increase participation in museums? Covering both platforms and different issues. Groups were encouraged to share and discuss ideas, rather than present past projects.
The approach of focusing on a challenge combined with the restrictions of limited funds led to a explosion in creativity of the real kind. The discussion was based around making the most of every penny, to justify producing something to encourage visitors to become part of the museum community. No investing in novelty or the grandiose. Every goal, every objective was about using resources carefully, to work with visitors and create a community. It was about ensuring the collection was seen, used and appreciated, working with the visitor as one of the resources that make up an exhibit.
Museums are always looking to produce the new and the innovative, in order to gain those important visitors. I think it likely even during these financial times, this will still be a driver. However, in previous years the focus has been on new technology products. At MuseumNext, innovative technology was superseded by innovative solutions for real projects. Getting audiences through the door because they are part of the museum.
As commercial enterprises, we have an opportunity. Quite often our skills are our creativity. Suppliers to museums don't tend to have thousands of products but a chosen few, which they adapt using their skills to solve challenges for different clients. We have worked with many different museums and therefore have experience of very different challenges and audiences. As commercial businesses, we are always looking at goals and examining how best to invest resources to gain the most from them.
Have I changed my mind?
Given the financial climate, museums are now becoming more open to using the resources they have. The opportunity will be for organisations that share their experience in careful use of resources to find creative solutions. So, should commercial organisations look at the museum sector as one of business opportunity? Well, I feel a sector that is opening up to explore creative solutions and partnerships, is always worth a shot but it definitely comes with a safety helmet and gloves.
Over the next few months, I’m hoping to examine what those opportunities could be. And, if we can encourage some of the creativity and participation found at MuseumNext, I'll be very, very happy indeed.