Covid-19 has upended many aspects of museums’ established business models. Typically, museums in neo-liberal economies have focused on monetising the in-person experience through ticket sales, the museum café, museum retail, special events and site rentals.
However, sustained national lockdowns have devastated this model. In the UK, over 70% of museums are independent of core government funding and rely primarily on commercial revenues: the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, for example, generates 90% of its annual income from visitors.1 With income streams curtailed, many museums have found themselves in dire financial straits.
It is difficult to know when tourist numbers will return to previous levels, particularly international arrivals. Further, the climate crisis is bringing the potential incompatibility of mass tourism and sustainability goals into stark relief. As such, ongoing innovation and diversification of museum business models is vital. Namely, museums must develop methods of creating experiences and products they can offer directly to the public, thus building dispersed supporter communities rather than solely relying on attracting visitors to a site. While this model poses conceptual challenges to a sector that sanctifies the in-person experience, it also presents opportunities to create compelling forms of engagement in light of the developing digital economy and changing modes of cultural consumption.
- Sale of museum-related products
Retailing has often been the only commercial activity to continue at museums during the pandemic, albeit in a limited capacity, and has pushed many into e-commerce. Museums adapted by producing culturally themed products pertinent to the conditions of lockdown including jigsaw puzzles and face masks. While it has long been the case that museum retailing has the potential to showcase collections and create connections with visitors, e-commerce presents opportunities to develop sustained relationships with external audiences. For example, Muzeo in Anaheim, California, has begun selling a quarterly subscription box containing art prints and materials ‘designed to spark your creativity and cultivate a deeper connection with local art and culture’. Such initiatives require a shift in thinking from souvenir-focused merchandise to creative ways for audiences to engage with museum collections beyond their walls. Moreover, they have the capacity to increase income streams while expanding meaningful learning opportunities.
- Sale of digital content, stories and experiences
During lockdown, museums created or reconfigured digital content to maintain audiences, utilising social media, sharing existing digitised objects and exhibitions, and providing access to online learning resources. Two distinct challenges have emerged. The first is the need to shift digital storytelling techniques from ones replicating in-person experiences (such as online catalogues and virtual exhibitions) to more dynamic forms of digital creation for which visitors are willing to pay. This may include narrative-driven content, bespoke curator tours, or live events like virtual escape rooms. The second is to find appropriate methods of commercialising such content, an approach sometimes at odds with long-standing attitudes within the sector of maximising access. An initiative that creatively re-imagined the digital experience was The Met Unframed, a time-limited experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which encompassed animated artwork, interactive games, and virtual loans that allowed the visitor to experience the museum in new ways. The Met Unframed was free (sponsored by commercial partner Verizon), but the experience could easily be monetised through ticketing or charging for additional extras, such as the loan of virtual artwork (similar to in-app payments). This could be a single payment or provided as part of a digital membership scheme.
- Building digital communities
Throughout lockdown museums have used digital platforms to launch fundraising appeals to avert insolvency or to support online programming. Engaging with supporters in such ways presents opportunities to build monetisable digital communities. This can be understood as an extension of traditional museum membership schemes, which typically incentivise repeat in-person visits through perks like free exhibition entry. Subscription platforms such as Patreon bring together geographically dispersed communities around digital content creation. Patrons receive perks like exclusive access to content or involvement in the material created and are motivated by a sense of belonging to a community. For example, The Tank Museum in Bovington, UK, has 1,002 followers on Patreon, who can sign up for four levels of membership at $5, $15, $30 or $200 per month, which offer accumulating in-person and digital perks. Currently this generates $9,120 per month for the museum.2 Similar strategies are used by non-profits to encourage regular donations, by ‘rewarding’ users with access and assuring them they are part of the ‘team’ making a meaningful contribution to the cause. While creating special content for those willing to pay a fee may appear exclusionary, it is arguably less elitist than member lounges and exclusive receptions, which are often a feature of membership schemes. Such digital communities can reduce barriers of physical and social capital to an actual museum space (although it could also erect barriers to those without Internet access), shifting emphasis to supporting a museum’s cause. This could create a broader community of supporters, providing an additional regular income stream.
Collaboration is Key
The development of off-site revenues relies on convincing visitors they can meaningfully connect with a museum without being on-site. This can be achieved by engaging audiences through sustained off-site retailing, engaging and exclusive digital content, and digital membership schemes that provide a sense of community. The resources needed to achieve such diversification may be daunting, but it also presents opportunities to collaborate with entities across the creative economy, such as startups, universities or other museums. This might see smaller museums with a thematic link pooling content (e.g. a subscription service providing access to stories from different railway museums each month). Alternatively, content may be centralised with a national subscription programme (similar to the UK’s National Art Pass) whose revenues support museums in general. These off-site strategies are not designed to detract from the experience of visiting museums, but to encourage the creation of meaningful experiences that can be delivered beyond their walls, in order to expand audiences and generate the resources needed to ensure their future financial resilience.
References and Resources
1 Bosner-Wilton, H. 2020. ‘With the coronavirus shutdown, smaller heritage sites such as the Mary Rose face a fight for survival’. The Art Newspaper. Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/mary-rose-coronavirus-help [Accessed 14 March 2021]
2 Patreon. 2021. ‘The Tank Museum’. Available at: https://www.patreon.com/tankmuseum [Accessed 14 March 2021]
More about the Muzeo subscription box: https://muzeo.org/product/muzebox-a-quarterly-subscription-box/
Narrative driven content at the Museum of London: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/event-detail?id=282008
Virtual escape room experience at the Newark Museum of Art: https://www.newarkmuseumart.org/virtual-escape-room-experience
More about the Met Unframed experience: https://www.metmuseum.org/press/news/2021/the-met-unframed
Tank Museum Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/tankmuseum