Principles of Museum Management

After almost twenty years of working in one way or the other with museums, historical societies and the like I came to develop some general guidelines on what I saw as the major things and museum professional should keep in mind as they go about their job day-to-day.

I. General Principles

A. Never do anything you don’t want to read about in the paper the next morning.

B. Read your mission statement often and reflect on how you’re working to meet its goals. Be willing to expand, contract or consider changes in your mission statement should your circumstances change. But above all, don’t ignore it. For better or for worse, it’s why you’re there, what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re going to do it.

C. Promotion. Promotion. Promotion. No matter what the program, event or simply being open day in and day out, let people know about it. If people don’t hear your name, see your brochures or logos or hear about you, they’ll never have a reason to come see you. And you don’t have to pay (unless it’s a special case) for such attention. By being active and using your imagination you can create just as big a splash day in and day out as you could by buying a week’s worth of full page newspaper advertisements. It’s the repetition that counts, not the volume. A good publicity plan is to work at having free publicity from the local newspapers at least every other week about something you’re doing or planning to do and to be on the radio and television at least monthly with coverage of your programs.

D. Give your staff areas of responsibility that fit their abilities, but make sure they also work as a team as often as possible. By being on a team they’re exposed to ideas, techniques and viewpoints that might not have occurred to them and it’s from this interplay of ideas that better displays and programs are built.

E. You can never have too much training. Training should start with the Board of Directors and continue on down to the volunteers and all members of the staff. The more you know, the more efficiently and professionally you can do your job. The more efficient and professional you are, the more people will respect you and your institution. And if you can pass some of what you know on to others in the field, don’t fail to do so.

F. Never pass up the chance to network with other people or groups. The passing contact you make today, could be the person who gives you that vital steer you need on short notice tomorrow. And don’t be wary of returning the favor. You only get as good as you’re willing to give.

G. You’re going to make mistakes. Learn from them, so you’ll not make them again. And glean as much positive as is possible from every negative that comes up.

H. Unless you know otherwise, don’t be afraid to ask anybody for anything. The worse thing they can tell you is “no.”

I. Never be afraid to ask for someone with a fresh point of view to come in and take a look at your operation. They may see things you’ve gotten used to overlooking or may have newer information or techniques that you don’t that could prove valuable to you.

II. A Good Museum

A. A good museum makes people want to come back again with their friends from out of town and to become involved with it at some level between member and volunteer.

B. A good museum is a vital part of its community. If it sees a need, and if that need falls into a section of its mission to the community, then it should certainly make an effort to fill that void. Such efforts could range from meeting areas to making the staff’s expertise available for special projects.

C. A good museum is a place where people of all ages and backgrounds can leave having learned something they didn’t know when they walked into the place. And they never knew that learning process was going on because they were having such a good time.

D. A good museum will always have something happening, or about to happen. It could be a regular member’s meeting, volunteer training session, special program with an outside speaker, an educational program or a big weekend event, but it will always have something going on that people can talk about and be invited to.

E. A good museum is “seamless” and has a natural flow that draws you in at the front and makes you sorry to suddenly see the exit.

F. A good museum has staff that is always available to visitors, but not intruding upon their experience if they don’t want it.

G. A good museum will work on the idea of “every one, recruit one,” when it comes to building your membership and volunteer base. Your members, volunteers and other interested parties are your best, most efficient sales group. Use them.

III. Cooperation Pays

A. Whenever possible have cooperative ventures with anyone you can find who can play a part in them. Consider working with anyone who can bring something to the project, no matter how small their contribution.

B. Do not look at each cooperative venture as one where you have to get back everything you put into it plus more. Take a long term view of cooperative ventures. The group you gave a steep discount on meeting space to could be a valuable pool of volunteers and members or a source of help at an annual event on down the road, but they’d not be there to call upon until they’ve been under your wing for a few months.

C. Be wary of being used in cooperative ventures as a “clean venue” for a “dirty” organization. The Hell’s Angels may have suddenly opened up a downtown orphanage for crack babies and would like to use your facilities to announce it from. But do you want to be associated with them? Does “dirty money” exist? Do you accept money from tobacco and/or liquor companies in exchange for a prominent mention? (One museum that faced this dilemma settled it by saying that dirty money didn’t exist, so they’d accept the donation. But, if that money came with “dirty strings” attached, they wouldn’t. It’s a philosophy I can generally agree with, but I’d want to see the strings before I made a final decision.)

IV. Display

A. Every museum will have its core collections it will always wish to display, but a museum is not a static institution. New information and ways of looking at artifacts and their uses are continuously being developed and part of the job of a museum’s staff is to be aware of these trends. Also new methods of display constantly come to the fore and all should be considered (but not automatically adopted just because they are new) to see how they might work (if at all) with your current display philosophy. But never reject something out of hand just because it is new (or old for that matter).

B. The measure of a good display, show or program is not now much it costs, how many flashing lights or computer screens it has, or how much space it occupies, but how well and efficiently it does its job.

C. Design on paper and matte board models long before you go to wood and paint. It’s far better to make a ten dollar mistake in the early planning stages and change your mind for something better, than to build it for a thousand dollars and find it doesn’t work.

D. Do the highest quality job on every display you’re involved with that your funding, materials and level of expertise will allow you to. And always be proud of your work, no matter what constraints you had to operate under.

E. Strive for consistency in your displays. Have an ongoing plan to make all of your displays uniform.

F. Don’t make your janitor your main collections management person. (If your displays never change than all you must be doing with your collection is to dust it.)

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