Historic House Museum Sustainability at MAAM

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It’s unclear if most historic house museums will be able to move beyond traditional approaches based upon the discussion at yesterday’s, “There is Power In a Union: Collaboration and Sustainability in Historic House Museums.” At the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums annual meeting, Frank Vagnone of the New York Historic House Trust moderated the session with a panel of five representatives of the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Home and Studios program and about 35 people in attendance.  Although Vagnone encouraged the group to focus on collaborations that earned significant income to sustain the museum, examples from the audience kept falling short.  Anything that provided some revenue (such as school groups or small grants) or increased attendance (even if it was shortlived or unrelated) were held up as acceptable partnerships.  The audience discussed the value of serving school groups, the need to use social media, the declining relevance of museums, and the challenge of obtaining grants from local banks, but no one was able to identify projects or collaborations that succeeded in raising more money than they spent.  It seemed that the field is still unable to find a balance between mission and money or unable to build strong partnerships, suggesting we’re ill-equipped to respond to the changes in the economy.

On the other hand, “Earned Income Here: Museum Dining, Catering, Facility Rentals, and Gift Shop” provided very clear answers about increasing revenue in ways that are mission related.  Art Manask moderated a session with four panelists who manage or consult on retail operations at major museums.  Earned income was an area that was mostly ignored until donations declined with the recent recession.  The panel suggested lots of great ideas but most important was a recognition that stores and restaurants rely heavily on existing traffic to museums, so if you don’t have adequate attendance, you probably can’t expect much success.  Secondly, a detailed understanding of the retail operation’s finances is essential to identify the products, locations, and times that sell best.  It’s about gaining an in-depth knowledge to develop benchmarks and measure performance to increase income.  Thirdly, museums need to emphasize customer service to ensure visitors not only buy merchandise but leave with a good experience.  Most museum stores are located at the exit, so store staff is the last and often only personal interaction visitors have with the museum.  Store staff are ambassadors of the whole museum and should know about merchandise, events, exhibits, and programs.  Finally, merchandise has to match market and mission, and most museums fall to one extreme or the other.  Merchandise needs to sell, not fill inventory, and has to encourage both gift and impulse purchases.

About 200 people attended the MAAM annual meeting this year in Washington, DC and the government shutdown affected meeting locations (the uncertain availability of the National Museum of the American Indian caused the meeting to relocate to the Holiday Inn).  Lots of graduate students in attendance, particularly from Cooperstown, West Virginia University, and George Washington.

2 thoughts on “Historic House Museum Sustainability at MAAM

  1. Sean


    I’d love to hear some examples of profitable partnerships you have seen in your work. Montpelier collaborates with the local chamber of commerce on two wine festivals each year that bring thousands of people to our property and earn each organization many thousands of dollars. As you know, we also host a large steeplechase event on our property each year that is also a very large draw (~15,000 people). Many people come to these events who were not planning to come to the historic home, but many do then tour the house or return later based on the new knowledge of what we are. We continue to look for new opportunities to expand activities related and not directly related to our mission to expand awareness of Madison and Montpelier and raise revenue.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Hi Sean! At this session, two profitable partnerships were mentioned. The first was between the Wharton Esherick Studio and Historic Yellow Springs to exhibit and sell of furniture made by contemporary artists. Esherick provided the wood and Yellow Springs provided the gallery space, and they split the proceeds between them. The other was a more complex arrangement between the Historic House Trust of New York City, the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts, and Great Camp Sagamore for a fundraising gala that included food, music, and art exhibits. From my days at the Homestead Museum in southern California, we had a good partnership with the Los Angeles Conservancy to hold an architectural crafts fair. The Homestead had two architecturally significant houses on a beautiful campus that could hold a lot of people and had the staff to provide the coordination; the LA Conservancy provided contacts for craftspeople tand volunteers to help during the event, and an ideal mailing list of people who were interested in this topic. We both used our strengths to create something we could not have done by ourselves, and raised funds for our organizations as well.


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