In 2006, John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, seasoned museum researchers and practitioners, released a co-authored book entitled Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. This remarkable book mixes business theory, visitor identity research, historical information about the evolution of museums, and predictive recommendations for museums moving forward. While at times wonkish, the book is also energetically adamant that museums need to change in several significant ways to be valuable and relevant to their audiences.
I've split my interview with John and Beverly into two parts for comfortable reading. This first part focuses fairly generally on the question of how to determine museums' value and developing institutional business models. The second part will delve more deeply into two topics: membership and admission pricing. I encourage you to share your own questions and thoughts in the comments, and of course, to read this excellent and challenging book.
This is a pretty powerful and provocative book—you talk about rethinking the whole business of museums. You argue that museums need to abandon the blockbuster and move towards providing personalized, customized learning experiences. In the three years since the book was published, what direction have you seen museums take and why?
Beverly: It’s really a mixed bag. I think to me one of the things that continues to be the most frustrating is the fact that admissions numbers continue to be the core metric of success. But on the other hand, I’ve heard people say, “well it shouldn’t be.” There’s a sense of frustration and awareness that there should be something else but people are having great difficulty sorting out what that should be. It’s indicative of the ways the museum world to me is a very conservative world. Even when there’s desire for change, it’s very difficult to shift practices across the board.
John: There has been receptivity to many of the ideas that we talk about in the book, but that receptivity far exceeds any change. So museum professionals are happy to say “we need to do things differently, and we know there are problems with numbers, blockbusters, etc” but the rhetoric exceeds the reality at this point. But it must be acknowledged that a leap into an unknown future is daunting and nobody knows exactly what that future should look like.
Beverly: And it’s not just the museums that need to make the shift. It is the whole system. When you go to your county for support or fill out a grant application, the question of numbers and things you do is part of their expectations as well.
Late in the book, you introduce Crawford and Mathew’s value matrix of five essential consumer values: access, experience, price, service, and product. You note that their research showed that the most successful businesses seek to dominate in only one area, be distinguished in another, and acceptable in the final three. Museums are very used to trying to be all things to all people. How do you recommend institutions prioritize their focus?
John: I was quite taken by Crawford and Mathew’s notion that to try to be excellent at everything is a recipe for bankruptcy. It rung true, and in some ways, I think the same shoe fits for nonprofits as well. It’s not about saying we’re going to be bad at something or exclude some people. It’s about being honest about what an institution can do that will help make them truly be unique in their community – their specific community. The Smithsonian and a small history museum have very different communities and thus should have very different expectations of what makes them unique. Find the thing that you can uniquely provide to your community and focus on that. Prioritizing does not imply exclusion, but it does acknowledge that you can’t serve all people equally well.
Beverly: I know in a consulting role, everyone says that their audience is “everyone.” It’s nice, but it isn’t true or useful. Finding your niche should be exciting. For example, I talked today to someone from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Juana Guzman, and they have fabulous ideas about connecting to community, saying we must connect in really integral ways with those people whom we serve. Guzman said, “we can talk about the appreciation of art and the aesthetic experience, but we don’t talk about every art form that we could fit in here. We talk about a cultural aesthetic.” It’s about understanding who you are and where your strengths are.
And then a lot of conversations I’ve had have come back to the concept of service. While it's one of the five consumer values Crawford and Mathews identified, it's an essential one for all museums. If you have excellent service, you should pick one other value to focus on as well.
Customer service is a fairly new term to the museum field, and I meet many museum professionals who are somewhat uncomfortable or leery of business terms of this type. Thriving in the Knowledge Age is very much a business book. How can we help museum professionals feel comfortable focusing on the bottom line while also keeping close to institutional missions?
Beverly: I’m somewhat astounded that there is something unsavory in the museum field about business terms. When it comes down to it, museums are businesses. They provide services. They sell things. It may be an implicit business model, but it’s a business model. The important thing is to focus that business model on the things that make the visit valuable to individuals and families. When you do this, it becomes obvious that customer service is about supporting the quality of experience. Aspects like orientation and how you are greeted help put visitors' anxieties aside and allow people to enjoy the experience. If you don't believe me, you should read the book The Museum Experience. Your customers do not differentiate between the cleanliness of the bathroom and the museum experience. It’s the whole deal.
John: The real currency in the 21st century is not about money – it’s about time. The competition is over peoples’ time, need and value of identity. That’s the business that museums are competing in. To pretend we’re not in competition for people’s time and their desire for a heightened experience doesn’t make sense: we’re absolutely competing in the truest business sense of the word “competition” for these values.
Beverly: But I would also put that uneasiness about “business” in the same category we used to think about “marketing.” Over time, museums have grown comfortable with the idea that marketing is a reasonable set of communication functions which let people know what’s going on, how to find and participate in things, how to know they are welcome.
It seems like collections-oriented art and history museums potentially have the hardest time picking a particular community to serve because they serve two—the donors who support them financially and the visitors who walk through the door. This seems like two very different customer bases, and I wonder if it leads to a kind of schizophrenia for institutions trying to serve both.
John: You’re right; art museums and collections institutions that have historically derived most of their funding through donors have been schizophrenic because the donors are their main customer. But then the question becomes, what about the public? Are we here to serve the public or to serve these donors? Are the donors here to serve the public? And that conflict needs to be wrestled with at the highest level; in other words with the board of directors.
Beverly: Many donors to museums also fund social service initiatives, but in those cases, the funders are explicitly supporting the public mission. This goes back to the problem of museums poorly defining their role. If museums are clear about what it is that they do relative to the public, they can find funders who support those goals.
I look forward to seeing your comments, and John and Beverly will check in as time permits to join the conversation as well. (But bear in mind I'm on vacation and won't be able to respond until the weekend.) Tune in on Thursday for the second part of this interview, when we will dive more specifically into John and Beverly's recommendations for new pricing and membership models for 21st century institutions.