Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Museums and the Buzz at Otago

The latest edition of ICOM News contains an interesting article which identifies three aspects to successful museums as follows:

  • Community engagement, i.e. ensuring that your local community is closely involved with the museum, both within and without
  • Innovative and unexpected exhibitions – exhibitions that offer fresh perspectives
  • Doing things well – maintaining high standards in everything from museum design to cleanliness of toilets
I would add a couple more, namely:
  • A strong corporate culture
  • A social space, namely a museum where people feel welcome and want to return to, where they are happy to meet their friends
So it’s always stimulating to unexpectedly come across a museum which is eminently successful, and I have just been lucky enough to spend 24 hours in Dunedin, New Zealand at the Otago Museum with the Director, Shimrath Paul and the Director Exhibitions, Development and Planning, Clare Wilson.

New Zealand consistently out guns Australia with its visitor numbers, with Te Papa in Wellington the most visited museum in Australasia at a cool 1.5 million last year. And the Otago Museum is no exception with an amazing 600,000 during a special exhibition year in 2008-09 but still in a regular year over 400,000. This is in a city with a population of only 120,000 and not much more in the local rural catchment area. Compare that with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney (population currently 4.2 million) on 470,000 visitors in 2009-10.

Has this achievement come from following these criteria for successful museums?

Let’s check it out:

  • Community engagement. The Otago Museum has a complicated governance model being essentially a regional museum with funding from a number of local councils. Each of these has to be kept happy as rate payers monies are being channelled to the Museum . Last year the Museum was Winner of the Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Tourism, reached out into communities in Otago with a SciCity based outreach programme, and ran Halloween guided tours round the Museum alongside a fortnightly series of live performances from kapa haka to Irish dancing. It’s noticeable that the museum guides are called communicators in the staff list, reflecting the importance the Museum sees in their role in this area with the community.
  • Doing things well. The Director did tell me they have discovered a number of people come to the Museum only to use the toilets so that part of the criteria is being achieved! But the Museum does present well with succinct signage, solid looking interactives and clear labelling.
  • Innovative and unexpected exhibitions. Two particular exhibitions caught my eye. One was a series of mini exhibitions in the foyer as a ’taster’ to the permanent exhibitions , being no more than a large showcase of, in turn, Indian ornate daggers, Macedonian pottery and Sir Edmund Hillary’s personal memorabilia. These change every two or three months. The other was a completely unexpected delight, namely a rainforest exhibition which morphed into a Butterfly gallery with live butterflies. Spectacular and a real draw card for repeat visitors, as the butterflies only last a few days so are constantly changing.
  • A strong corporate culture. This is where the Museum really does excel – you can feel it in the place just chatting to staff. And they have done this by creating a Strategic Plan into which all staff contributed during an intensive bonding session away from the Museum, and then more importantly actually sticking to what the Plan says they were going to do. Indicative of this is that in the staffroom there is a list of “behaviours we need and respect” and “ behaviours we will not tolerate”. Check out the Plan on their website, where these are listed – it is well worth a read.
  • A social space. The entrance was redeveloped to reorientate the face of the Museum from a busy road to the local park a few years ago and the result is an airy glass walled atrium which is inviting and full of buzz and people. The café is in this space, and the coffee was excellent – such an important part of museum visitation if people are going to be encouraged to return. Indicative of this, the Director was himself checking out the coffee as a new barista had started the day I was there.
So if you are down that part of the world I do recommend you call in.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 19, 2010

Retaining members

Ensuring that members renew their memberships each year is a key objective for most membership based organisations. For instance at the National Trust of Australia, with which I am closely involved, we know that we have regular core members and then opportunistic ones, the latter being those that either join to support a particular heritage cause or more pragmatically to get free entry to National Trust houses world wide when they are travelling. The core group tend to renew unprompted, the opportunistic ones may need chivvying along. The traditional way to do this is by personally phoning them to encourage them to renew, with the added advantage of getting feedback on the organisation. However this is expensive in terms of resources and may have only limited success.

Most museums and galleries have major membership programs. The highly successful MOMA membership program boasts an astonishing 130,000 members. But in times of economic downturn membership renewals are often the first to be chopped from personal budgets.

A couple of interesting case studies I have come across show some different ways to retain members. ICOM News reports that at the Tate in the UK, membership had risen to 90,000 when the GFC hit in 2008, at which point retention rates, having been around the 90% mark, started dramatically falling. So at what sounds like considerable cost to the management, an external data analysis company, Tullo Marshall Warren was brought in to help solve the problem. Members were broken down into eight segments, based on their propensity to lapse. Particular focus was made on the frequency of visits to the various Tate galleries (Tate Britain , Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives), as it was discovered that if visits start to tail off in the last six months of membership, there is a high chance of lapsing. If a member has lapsed for over 24 months, it was a waste of time targeting them.

It may all sound like the bleeding obvious and Tate themselves acknowledge that there were no major surprises. But what it has helped them do is to work out how better to retain members before they reach the lapsing stage. After three months of membership an email is sent to members, offering a ‘Tate treat’ in the form of a designer travel wallet when they next visit. At six months they are sent a pack of post it notes with reminders of the exhibition schedule and at nine months, just before the renewal process, the ‘Tate treat’ is a free coffee at the Museums’ cafes. Retention rate is back at 90% so it seems to be working.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic at the Whitney in New York, a different route is being employed to retain members, by offering a ‘Curate your Own’ membership. Members can select one of five specialised buckets of benefits to add to the core admission and discount member benefits. Driven initially by falling membership as the GFC hit, the Whitney wanted to find a way of connecting with their members and the experiences they most value at the Whitney, admittedly off a much smaller base than the Tate of 12,500 members. Through focus group work, they discovered five strong attitudinal segments, each of which was developed up into its own package of benefits.

The five are:

  • Social, for those who enjoy cocktail parties and previews, and social gatherings around cultural events
  • Insider, for those who like to see behind the scenes and be able to talk directly to curators and conservators
  • Learning, providing regular lectures and gallery talks, and access to educational programs
  • Family, providing such benefits as kids passports, stroller tours, and guest passes for family carers
  • Philanthropy, for those wanting to support the Whitney’s work
Sounds like a great idea, but very labour intensive to organise and deliver. It is also unclear at present if it has helped retain or grow members at the Whitney.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, November 8, 2010

Museum statistics

We all know the Disraeli quote that There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. So I hesitate to draw attention to the latest offering from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview
However it does make for interesting reading. It’s just been released (October 2010), but only covers the year 2005-2006. The information is now going to be regularly updated, so that for instance the section on attendance in selected cultural venues for 2009-2010 is due out by next month.

Let me provide a snapshot of what I found to be some of the more interesting statistics, all of which relate to the period 2005-06:

  • Australians on average spent 0.3% of their time visiting entertainment and cultural venues, which is the same as that spent on religious activities and three times as much as that spent at sporting venues.
  • 3,630,000 people attended art galleries and 3,611,900 attended museums (i.e. almost equal) as compared to 5,699,000 that attended zoos or aquariums (surprisingly high) and 1,508,000 that attended classical music concerts (surprisingly low).
  • Significantly more females attended art galleries than males, whereas only marginally more females attended museums than males.
  • The frequency of attendance at art galleries (36% only once, 46% 2-4 times and 17% 5 times or more) was significantly higher than at museums (50% only once, 39% 2-4 times and 11% 5 times or more).
  • 57% of overseas visitors attended a museum or art gallery and 62% visited a historic building or site
  • State funding of collecting institutions varies widely, an interesting comparison being between the three major eastern states. On the face of it, there is a massive discrepancy between museum spending in Victoria and NSW, with the latter being far more supportive. Likewise in Queensland , it looks as though Archives are being disproportionately supported, though this may be due to capital works.

                                       Art galleries  Museums   Libraries    Archives

                     NSW           $49.9m          $138m          $67.3m          $7.9m

                     Victoria        $43.7m       $46.9m       $85.9m        $15.1m

                    Queensland    $36.2m    $37.1m    $48.8m       $51.9m

  • Employment in museums and art galleries rose from 5,422 in 2001 to 6,204 in 2006 a rise of 14%, whereas employment in libraries dropped a massive 39% in the same period from 11,451 to 6,986, no doubt partly due to the introduction of technological services
A few thoughts arising from these stats:

  • What is the offering that zoos/aquariums are providing that attracts so many more visits than art galleries and museums? Is it all about attracting kids?
  • The significantly increased frequency of visits (i.e. return visitation) to art galleries over museums is in my view due to the better handle art galleries have on creating social spaces, i.e. places where people want to come to socially interact and dwell.
  • With over 6 million overseas tourists and students coming to Australia each year, the fact that 57% of them visit a museum or art gallery must make us focused on how we cater for them.
  • There are a large number of unemployed librarians out there.
It is also worth taking a look by comparison at a new UK site that Creative Choices has put out called Data Generator, which is designed to help individuals and businesses access the latest economic and demographic research and analysis. It looks to be a useful online tool that can help with advocacy, strategic decisions, future planning, funding applications and presentations, and if nothing else proves the point that statistics do indeed have a use.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, November 4, 2010

UK museum cuts and the broader context

I may have spoken a little too optimistically in my last blog about the likely effects of the UK budget cuts on the museum sector. Certainly the cuts at a national level have not proven to be as severe as was widely feared (and planned for). But the reality of post budget life in Britain is already beginning to hit home, particularly at a regional level, where there are thousands of museums which do not receive DCMS (Department of Culture Media and Sport) funding. Local museums are almost universally funded by local councils and that is where the cuts are really going to bite, with local council funding reduced by 28% as compared to 15% for national museums. The UK Museums Association is running a ‘Cuts Monitor’ which details the reality of this situation - an example already of an award winning local museum having to cut staff from 70 to 15. Meanwhile universities have seen an even bigger cut of 40% to all but research programs and science and technology teaching, which is bound to have a direct effect on university funded museums. English Heritage, which at one stage looked as though it might be abolished and its operations amalgamated into another body, has survived but been hit with cuts of 32%, resulting in pay cuts, and the loss of 8 directors, and this after a 3 year pay freeze.

So are they going to be able to do about it? English Heritage currently generates 25% of its’ income from commercial activities mostly at their 400 historic sites and properties, and they are going to have to look to ways to expand these. I am indebted to my colleague Sarah Jane Rennie of the Museums and Galleries NSW for drawing my attention to some of the other proactive ways in which the sector is looking to help. Sarah Jane has recently been in Scotland and came across a toolkit that Museums Galleries Scotland recently released to guide museums and galleries practitioners through times of drastic funding cuts, Choices for Change. It is aimed at local council museums that need to look at alternative ways of governance and operation to survive, and will have resonance with similar organisations in Australia.

And at another level, there is an interesting article in the latest Museum Practice on how to make loans more economically sustainable, which also has the advantage of their being more environmentally sustainable. Where this is coming from is that loans per se are expensive, and that therefore as the budget cuts hit so loans will fall, as loaning institutions attempt to recover the full cost of making loans (typically an administration fee is charged which in reality does not cover the full costs). The UK Museums Association is reviewing its key principles for loans through its Smarter Loans initiative. This is aimed at reducing costs in areas such as packing and transport by adopting a ‘common sense’ attitude. Not sure what that means but it always sounds like an excellent idea to me.

What I like about this review also is that it is helping to feed into the work that the Eu EGOR group (Environmental Guidelines Opportunities and Risks) are undertaking in looking at how environmental guidelines can be relaxed within certain parameters. This of course has a direct effect on energy costs which are typically 70% of a museum’s costs after salaries have been paid. And that is going to help lead worldwide to a new approach to environmental guidelines. AICCM has currently a taskforce in place which I am chairing to look at exactly that issue, the fundamentals as articulated by the National Museums Directors’ Conference guiding principles for reducing carbon footprints being:

  • Environmental standards to become intelligent and better tailored to needs. No longer use blanket conditions for entire buildings
  • Care of collections should not assume air conditioning
  • Natural and sustainable environmental controls to be explored and exploited
  • New or renovated museum buildings should aim to reduce carbon footprint as their primary objective
So at least out of the adversity that our UK colleagues are experiencing some good may come.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director