Core business of a Museum

As a marketeer I sometimes wonder what is the purpose of a museum? What is the core business of a museum? In my work I am always so focused on selling exhibits that I think that other products and services that are made by my museum are less important. For example a curator has written a new book about ‘Embroidery from Guatemala’. He then asks me to make a press release…..Or the museum has acquired the same embroidery and the collection department is hoping that the press will be all over it. So should I give attention to these events? Or are they in a different category of business next to exhibiting?

To answer this question I start my investigation with the definition of a museum:

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) states on their website:

‘A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.’

PFFF, WOW, what a definition….

When you look carefully you can see that a museum has three main business purposes.

1. Collection, via acquire & conserve
2. Communicate and exhibit
3. Research

I personally think that in a museum organization these three core business should be seen as three different business entities with their own key performance indicators. And I even think that is possible to separate/outsource them.

Let’s start with Collection. The conserving of the collection is not something that has to be done by a museum itself. It would probably a lot cheaper if museums combine their collection in one central storage department with a dedicated staff. A lot of economy of scale can be reached here. Combining the collections would also make it more accessible. There is only one database instead of several which can be used for research purposes.

Exhibiting: lets give some examples: here in the Netherlands we have two famous exhibition halls called ‘de nieuwe kerk‘ and ‘de kunsthal‘. They have a lot of exhibitions on display and are successful with that. But they don’t have any collection of their own. They use external curators to make their exhibition and they use collection of other museums or other organizations.

Finally does a museum have to have their own research department? As seen above exhibition halls can do without. But even if you have a collection of your own, do you really need curators? You need them, but not on a permanent pay list. The Dutch open air museum was almost bankrupt a few years ago and the first thing they did to survive was fire their curatorial department. And the museum flourishes as never before….

I also think that research can be better done at a University then at a Museum. Again you can reach considerable economies of scale but also most universities have clear academic standards on how you must perform as a professor. I sometimes get the feeling that these standards are lacking in a lot of museums.

But next to three core business defined above there is also a fourth. A lot of museums have one major asset: their building. The exploitation of a museum building with shops, for parties, for special events can be a major source of revenue.

And maybe there is even a fifth: merchandising, but you can also say that merchandising is a derivative of exhibiting or collection.

And should I write a press release about the book ‘Embroidery from Guatemala’? Since my job description is a bit fuzzy it is up to me, but if I see myself working for the core business ‘exhibiting’ I can let this work pass.