Is your university museum, prep school gallery, or small-town historic tourist attraction in danger of closing down? We can help you fix your failing museum.
The Problem With Your Failing Museum
Perhaps you have a grand old Beaux Arts building with peeling lead paint where paintings go to die. Or you have a niche alumni collection of stuffed birds slowly turning to dust. Did your institution have a Museum of Forgotten Hobbies that was the pet project of an oldster who left for Florida with the only set of keys and $200,000?
Maybe you have a tiny collection housed in a museum with a Vast Vanity Project Atrium named after a now-disgraced donor that is hard to fill up and impossible to heat. That useless triple-height room always feels empty no matter how many visitors you have.
Worse: Is your failing museum in the center of a city ravaged by redlining and modern-day apartheid? Was your urban area destroyed by misguided racist “urban renewal” projects? Did it suffer when white people fled for the malls and never recover when the malls died their sputtering animatronic death one Chuck E Cheese at a time?
Do you have an enormous plaza outside your museum that is a magnet for drug deals and unhoused people seeking the warmth of your inefficient exhaling heating vents? Is that expanse of difficult-to-shovel, slippery-when-raining, broiling-in-summer, chewing-gum-encrusted pavement the daily scene of a class and cultural war over the meaning of your city?
Are you on the right side of this fight? Probably not.
That space outside your museum is a symbolic battlefield and your museum is doomed to fail unless you surrender the battle and give that space back to the people of your city or school.
Bad Faith Efforts to Save Your Musum
We know you have soooooo many initiatives to “engage the community” and “connect with young people” blah blah blah. You took grant money to bring in a new demographic. Your unread reports all document the supposed efforts your museum made to “reach out” to communities of color and or non-oldsters.
But the truth is you did not want to open your museum up, you wanted to lock it down. The goal was always to keep the museum closed to the world outside its rich white bubble. Failure has always been more of a feature than a bug of elite cultural institutions. When foot traffic is down, you use that as an excuse to raise more money from elite donors. It is poetic justice that your museum will probably get shut down altogether.
Before that happens, however, consider what you might do if you really cared to make the space of your museum safe and beloved by the larger community.
Know that making a good-faith effort to share your space with the public is risky. It means accepting inevitable public failures. Some of your events will flop. Unlike your bad faith effort to include token photos of that one black school group in your annual report, reaching out to the community beyond your Board of Trustees requires bravery.
How To Save Your Museum
Let’s start with that unhoused people problem. You have noted in your Annual Report that regular patrons are reluctant to walk around unhoused people and are frightened of the specter of poverty. As a way of absolving yourself, you have always added that other institutions in your town have the same problem.
You have tried calling the cops, hiring security, removing benches, and creating architectural barriers like spike walls. Poverty has become an excuse for making your museum a fortress. All of these things feel bad and also drive your target Rich Paying Patrons away.
How about you ask the people encamped outside your museum what services would be most useful to them? Once a week your museum can offer food and other desired amenities to the unhoused population as they direct. Band together with other museums and libraries to create a hosting rotation.
On days you are not hosting the unhoused, other institutions take their turn on the rota freeing up your grand plaza. For a few days, you can pretend we are not living in a dystopian nightmare.
While it might make most sense to host the unhoused on the day your museum is closed, the goal is not to drive the unhoused away. Instead, you want to show respect for the poorest among us and foster their respect for your institution.
To that end, engage the unhoused population in your collection. Offer a museum tour to the people who are regularly outside your building. Instead of seeing unhoused people as the enemy, see them as your most loyal and regular patrons and try to figure out what exhibits engage them. Just the way you host cocktail parties for your big donors and local civic organizations plan events for the people who are sleeping on your doorstep.
Attracting Millennials and Gen Z To Museums
Your museum is already a resource for Boomers. Boomers go on their dating app dates at the museum, Boomers host their spoiled daughter’s wedding reception at the museum, they name-drop their museum membership at their Club, and they take their annoying out-of-town relatives there.
Make your museum a resource for Gen X, M, and Z by hosting events people attend because they want to, not because they were dragged there by their mother or handsy father-in-law.
Events to Attract Younger Museum Visitors:
Bob Ross Fair. Dress up as folk hero and historic PBS celebrity painting teacher Bob Ross. Show off your Bob Ross creation. Watch the admittedly flawed Owen Wilson biopic on the big screen. Take selfies with blow-up Bob Ross and participate in the unlikely revival of a kitschy but sincere cultural figure. If Bob Ross can make a comeback, so can your museum.
Poetry Slam. Finally, put your expensive unused AV equipment to use. All you need is that missing box of adapters.
TikTok festival featuring local creators. Let a thousand ring lights shine.
Podcast Booths for the Gen Xers who want to showcase their deep interest in Railroad Murders but can’t afford the studio space. You can ask them to mention your venue on their True Crime Transportation podcast in exchange for the privilege of entering your padded foam sanctuary.
DJ Battle of warring weekend music wannabes. Since everyone in Portlandia wants to be a DJ you may have to create dedicated Psychobilly and Zombie Punk nights to give each nascent mixer a chance to spin.
Proms! Offer your ballroom to schools that can’t afford an expensive hotel. Yes, the kids may trash the place. But let’s face it, those Silent Generation parties can often end up with clogged toilets as well. If no school wants your ballroom, offer it as a free location for an alternative prom for a left-out group like Dropouts or Sports Haters. Parents at pickup may find themselves signing up to rent your space for their lucrative event, but the goal is not to bring in more event business but to create a positive connection with younger people. You will be the background of their throwback Instagram Anti-Football posts forever.
Decade Costume Parties. People love the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s more than they love the actual people from those decades. Start with a Mrs. Roper party and work your way up to Prince. Your unused planetarium can certainly create purple rain for an indoor rave.
Self-Published Author Book Fair. The big publishing houses may be failing just as badly as the museums and for a lot of the same reasons. But the self-publishers will survive you all. Your DIY writers will promote the event for you. Offer a publishing prize at the festival and create your own indie imprint of Sexy Needlepoint monographs and Berenstain Bears Fanfiction Manga.
Drag Queen Story Hour For Adults. Even if it’s not legal in your state, the controversy will be good for you. Resist the urge to insist on a tie-in with your extensive moth-riddled clothing and costume collection. It can’t be forced, your Drag Night must be free.
Dissertation Karaoke Night for Disaffected Graduate Students. It’s so hard to talk about your dissertation idea. Especially after 11 years have passed of underpaid adjunct teaching and being dissed by your privileged teen students. Graduate students can try putting their ideas about Medieval tax ledger marginalia or the role of dog catchers in Merry Old England to song.
Bar. We assume you know you must have some late nights to attract more visitors, and that any extra expense will pay for itself in increased ticket sales. One of the spooky/beautiful stone basement rooms in your museum would make a great taverna/speakeasy. Curators already use those rooms to vape and hook up. Let people take their very expensive drinks and walk around the museum as you would at a gallery opening, tottering around in high heels and uncomfortable clothes and making pretentious remarks designed to be overheard.
Etsy Festival. Bring makers to your windswept plaza or drafty lobby. Set up demo booths where patrons can see crafters at work on their Lego renditions of famous paintings or their knitted Michelangelos.
Livestream Video Gaming Tournament. Do not try to organize this yourself! Hire a young person to set this up. Ask them to include some vintage games like Tetris, but mostly keep it current.
Band Night. Offer your never-used cafe with the three sad stale tuna sandwiches to a different local kid band every night you are open late. Let them and their friends in for free. You never broke even in the cafe anyway.
Makeup Booths. Gen Z likes to showcase putting on makeup. Host a makeup tutorial night to get them talking.
Writer’s Block Chop. Bring in more intellectuals with a celebration of Writer’s Block. Provide large blocks of ice and hatchets to chip away at them. As Kafka says, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” (Note: not safe for kids, adults only).
Steampunk Extravaganza. Steampunkers are an audience with a built-in interest in history and creepy Victorian things. Share your space and your collection of whalebone corsets and solid brass sex toys with them.
ASMR Expo. Many museum activities like art restoration have already made it into the cult world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos. Capitalize on this mega-trend with spine-tingling demos of quietly brushing dirt off paintings and polishing bronze sculptures of Apollo.
Paint By Numbers Event. Sip and Paint events bring in Boomers who love chardonnay and showing off, but the latest Paint By Numbers Craze will be the Bingo of the next generation. All the better if you can up your merch game by creating custom PBN kits based on your existing (copyrighted) collection.
Wheelchair Ball. One good thing we can say about your museum: it is ADA-compliant since the last lawsuit. Use your accessible space to host a Wheelchair event that finally takes advantage of that elevator that’s usually locked.
Behind-The-Scenes Giveaways. It is customary to auction off behind-the-scenes tours to your richest donors at your stuffy galas. But the people most interested in those tours might be penniless history buffs and outsider nerds. Let them mansplain the errors in your Insider Art display or micromanage mistakes in your Miniature Railroad Murders dioramas. Glamorize the backstage areas where you shuffle away your days in quiet despair.
Star Wars Costume Day. Give Latchkey Gen Xers the lavish theme birthdays they never got since they were neglected and forgotten by their preoccupied Boomer parents.
Open Mic Spoken Word Nights. This is the non-competitive version of the wildly popular Poetry Slam phenomenon. Expect to hear some things about your museum that will hurt.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Museums
Performative DEI efforts often ignore the real issues: inequity and exclusion.
(See the Instagram account: @changethemuseum).
Every museum director assumes that they should (but won’t bother to) try to find some way to bring low-income patrons to their institution.
One of the main problems is always that poorer people live farther away and are intentionally cut off from richer areas by the planned failures of public transportation.
This is true of underserved school districts as well. It is incredibly expensive and difficult to arrange to bus grade school students into your museum even if you truly wanted to host these children. Most half-hearted efforts to open the museum to local children end in frustration and circular email extermination.
But museums already have low-income people in them. Those low-income people are sweeping your floors, cleaning up your bathrooms after the Trustees trash them, taking tickets, and moving boxes of artisanal macaroni for the Etsy festival.
Your front-line staff is the first bridge out of the museum.
Ask the people who work in your museum how you can make your museum more friendly to them and their families. Do not expect hourly staff to do outreach work for free, pay them extra to come and consult. Your staff has the knowledge you need and it is worth compensating them before hiring an expensive consultant whose advice you never intend to follow.
Offer free passes to front-line staff to hand out in their neighborhoods. Provide staff with free childcare for every event.
Create a program like bookstores have with Staff Picks and let your security guards choose their favorite works to highlight each month and compensate them for presenting their choices.
Give your hourly staff walkthroughs at every stage of exhibit planning and get their expert input.
Foster a sense of pride and engagement with the workers who make your museum run. Feature maintenance and security staff in your brochures. Showcase what they do in your behind-the-scenes videos and other online content. Treat them with respect.
Do not expect respect to come easy. Respect is not free. You must earn it.
If you want to send a message of inclusion and respect you need to treat your front-line workers the way you treat your top brass and old rich donors.
That means some hard choices. Instead of building another glass pyramid or Hall of Donors, how about you invest in the community by paying your workers more? Take a hard look at the wages of your staff. Are you paying a living wage? A family wage? Do your front-line staff have to work other jobs just to get by? Do they get the same health insurance and benefits as curators? Is working at the museum a path to the American Dream for new immigrants or is it a dead-end job?
Most American cities are still living under the apartheid created by the highway system, the public transportation system, restrictive housing, and social segregation. That means it is very likely that if you look at the staff of your museum you have people of color working in the lowest-paying jobs and white people working in the highest-paying and most prestigious jobs. This is often the case even where the Museum Director or Trustee Chair is a person of color, or the items on display are works of non-whites.
Every person who walks into the museum sees that racial inequity playing out before them. It is one of your main exhibits.
Museum administrators are bitter, angry, and burned out. Two-thirds of museum workers are considering quitting, according to a recent study. This may blind you to the much worse situation of hourly workers in your ranks.
How can you address inequity, exclusion, and racism within your institution? How can you create a pathway to economic upward mobility for the people sweeping your floors?
Instead of paying for another pricey traveling show of creepy Degas drawings of underage girls at the margins of the sex trade, why don’t you sponsor college scholarships for your security guards?
Instead of that annual executive retreat where people cheat on their spouses and produce empty directives, how about giving paid vacation time to the cleaning staff?
Instead of a granite wall with the names of donors engraved in gold leaf, how about including every single worker on your website?
Instead of a donor dinner that celebrates the self-serving tax breaks of the Sicker family and their Revenue Pharma Poxycodone empire, how about a living wage for your daily workers?
Instead of insider internships for Sicker kids who don’t need a leg up, how about creating a paid internship program for the children of your food service workers?
Instead of another soon-to-be-broken digital exhibit that only one patron can interact with at a time, how about on-site daycare and nursing rooms for maintenance staff?
Instead of glossy brochures destined for the Not-Really-Recyclable Bin, how about a legal clinic to help immigrant employees with their USCIS paperwork?
The standard advice for the little museum is to post on Instagram and have a Ghost Tour at Halloween.
That advice will make your museum a graveyard.
Time for the Goo Goo Muck!
You Should Also Read: Why Expensive Vanity Buildings Get Built