Museums & Innovation
„I once asked Eric Siegel, director of the New York Hall of Science, why museums are rarely innovative shining stars on the cutting edge of culture. He commented that, as nonprofits, museums are built to survive, not to succeed. Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren’t structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They’re made to plod along.
Maybe it’s time to change that.
The problem arises when the desire to sustain overcomes the desire to be superlative and more resources go to surviving than succeeding.
For some museums, awesomeness has never been part of the mission statement or core services. Elizabeth Merritt from AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums wrote a provocative post on her blog in March about the financial future of museums in which she suggested, among other things, that 20 percent of museums should be allowed to fail in the coming decades. As she puts it: “Museums have an amazing ability to survive in the most adverse environments. They are the cockroaches of the nonprofit world—sometimes it really does seem like you can’t kill them with an atomic blast. Most of the time some improbable deus ex machina saves the day: for example, an unexpected cash gift or a free building. Mind you, this often only saves the distressed museum from closure—it does not cure the underlying dysfunction. The museum may simply struggle along for another ten years before the next potentially fatal crisis.”
The underlying dysfunction that Merritt mentions is often an inability to focus on anything but survival. To make it, museums need to survive and succeed. As an exercise, I think it’s important for museums to list two types of things:
1. Core services that people depend on and need to survive. These include museum jobs in a stable workplace and programs that address a societal gap not provided by other organizations. For example, maybe your museum provides job training for at-risk youth, and your community relies on your consistent ability to do so.
2. Services you provide that make you awesome. These should be the reasons you go to work in the morning. What draws people through your door, gets them excited and connects them passionately with your content?
The desire to survive will always exist, whether you run a small institution or a giant one. Sustainability always emerges as a core value of organizations. It’s human nature to want to keep your job and keep doing what you’re doing. The challenge is to not make it your primary goal.“
By Nina Simon