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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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How to Save a Natural History Museum

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 4, 2013

Art from the Dutch Commission explorers in what is now Indonesia

Art from the Dutch Commission explorers in what is now Indonesia

Natural history museums around the world are struggling to survive.   Even the celebrated Field Museum in Chicago recently announced a budget cutback targeted mostly at its scientific staff.   So this article from the Wall Street Journal caught my attention as I was traveling last week.

The gist of it is that the the Peabody Essex Museum, once a dusty little American history venue in Salem, Mass., decided to change its audience and vastly increase its endowment.  The aim was to avoid being caught in the trap of continually chasing short-term funding.

To get that endowment, it transformed itself to find a new audience–the audience, that is, living next door.  When Dan L. Monroe became director in the early 1990s, he realized that the museum’s main challenge was to give local residents reason to become repeat, lifelong visitors to the museum.

Natural history museums have the same basic problem.  They attract families with young children, and when the children get past second or third grade, the families fade away.  The other thing that struck me is that the Salem museum chose to emphasize art and culture over straight history.   Though naturalists will hate to think it, art not only brings in bigger repeat audiences, but it has more status appeal than science for the sort of people who might become museum endowment donors.

An Edward Lear pigeon

An Edward Lear pigeon

The idea isn’t to cut back on the science or to back off from the primary mission of preserving and documenting life on Earth, but to develop both by taking advantage of neglected strengths:  Early naturalists often produced great visual records of what they were seeing–and their drawings and water colors lend themselves to exhibitions.  (I know some museums are already doing this sort of thing.  But for instance:  A show on Audubon and Alexander Wilson, the rival fathers of American ornithology; a show on the pigeon art of Edward Lear, or the mycology of Beatrix Potter; a show on how natural history discovery shaped the entire genre of children’s books.)   The discoveries the naturalists brought home also showed up in the great art of the day, particularly in the Netherlands.  Finally, as I discuss in my book The Species Seekers, what the naturalists were discovering had a profound effect on poetry, fiction, music, and other cultural endeavors.   Staging exhibitions and concerts  and plays to celebrate these connections would draw a whole new audience in among the dinosaur skeletons.  What about comedy even?  British stand-up comic Bill Bailey is, for instance, currently doing a show about Alfred Russel Wallace, the … step-father of evolutionary theory.

Here’s part of the Wall Street Journal story:

… conventional wisdom in the museum world dictates that raising endowment money is too tough to tackle. “It’s a self-supported vicious circle that we have gotten ourselves into as a field,” Mr. Monroe says, “that people will only give to a new building where they can put their name on it.” When annual contributions come up short, both museum staffers and trustees tend to look first at ways to increase earned income—raising the price of admission; staging blockbuster exhibitions to draw more visitors; building destination restaurants; renting out event spaces and “renting” works from their permanent collections to other museums. Some have taken to consulting on art for airports and hotels, offering website-design advice to their peers, and talking about developing apps to sell to visitors—in vast numbers, of course.

The Peabody Essex is doing some of those things, too, but as Joshua Basseches, PEM’s deputy director and chief operating officer, who was invited by Mr. Monroe to join our lunch in the museum’s restaurant, says, “To dramatically increase earned revenue from sources other than admissions and retail is hard to do.”

Mr. Monroe says that the Peabody Essex has been able to go its own way because it has tightly linked its financial game plan with the museum’s strategy, which is founded on insights that date to the 1990s. Salem is a historic town, and the museum used to depend on attracting 65% of its audience from tourists and 35% from the local population. By the time Mr. Monroe arrived, however, historic sites were losing their appeal to Americans. The Peabody Essex decided to stress art and culture, instead of history, and to reverse its visitor targets: 35% should be tourists and 65% should come from the area. “That gives you a dynamic relationship with the community and the capability to develop a support base,” Mr. Monroe says.

To draw more local visitors, the museum had to turn them into repeat visitors. So, over the years, its collections have evolved to include more art, its programs to offer more changing exhibitions, and its buildings expanded twice to provide more space for galleries, programs, a bigger gift shop, a glass-enclosed atrium where visitors may rest their eyes between gallery visits, and so on. Annual attendance is now about 250,000, double the total in 2002, before the last expansion.

Mr. Monroe still talks a lot about “improving the visitor experience”—now the subject of a regular survey—and advancing the museum’s mission, which has also evolved. It now includes a line that he believes is a key to its fundraising success: “Through its exhibitions, programs, publications, media and related activities, PEM strives to create experiences that transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.”

Donors, Mr. Monroe says, have been receptive to the idea that it’s far more important to have an impact on people’s lives than it is to put their name on a building. His evidence for life-changing experiences is anecdotal—more repeat visits, changing attitudes toward art, and so on. But it’s convincing enough for Mr. Monroe to say, “We raise money around our mission, and not around buildings.”

With that in mind, PEM was also able essentially to flip the proportions of two of the three sources of income. In 2017, earned income will continue to provide about 24% of the budget, but just 18% will have to derive from contributed income, because 58% will come from the endowment. Very few other museums come close to that—with Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art being a notable exception. The lucky ones might be striving toward a model that equalizes the share contributed by the three money pots.

Having said all that about natural history museum, I should add an entirely contrary note, from the cheesy but popular British artist Damien Hirst, who has said:  “I always thought it would be great if art galleries were more like the Natural History Museum (London), where you go in and there’s this big wow factor, rather than having to ask yourself, ‘What am I supposed to be thinking?’”

Let’s just say that the differing museum categories have a lot to learn from one another.

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