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How do you start a museum? Advice from four museum leaders who’ve done it

The process of translating an idea and opening your doors as a museum can be a challenging and foreboding process. To help give insight on the topic, MuseumNext consulted with the heads and founders of four recently opened museums for recommendations on steps and frameworks to consider. These four institutions vary in subject matter and format as well as their locations; they cover three different continents. Several themes and frameworks emerged in conversations with all four people. Note: this is not an exhaustive guide but a framework to start thinking about opening a museum.

Play Africa - starting a museum in South Africa

Play Africa is the first children’s museum in South Africa

The first step is having an idea for a museum. This idea can be a concept, such as American writers, climate change, a children’s museum or something else completely. Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, Founder and CEO of Play Africa, decided to open the first children’s museum in South Africa after going to the Imagine Children’s Museum outside of Seattle with her children. In her MuseumNext talk, she explained that her vision was “a safe, child-friendly space to play, learn and dream” in Johannesburg. Carey Cranston, the president of The American Writers Museum in Chicago, USA, explained that the museum was driven by people who felt strongly about the need for such an institution to exist since nothing existed like it in the US. Bridget McKenzie founded the Climate Museum UK in 2018 because “climate change causes rapid changes to the planet, to our politics, to our sense of being human, sense of our continuity of heritage, and all kinds of people need support to deal with those changes.”

More traditionally, museums can be founded around a collection. That collection can be an archive of a famous writer’s writings or a collection of objects like a corkscrew or shoes. Some museums are a combination of both an assortment of objects and ideas. Emma Balch was inspired by the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye to create The Story of Books, a working museum ‘where stories are told and books are made’ with a collection of objects, books and equipment specifically for this purpose.

After you’ve had spark of an idea for a museum, the first step is learning as much about the topic area as much as possible. This information gathering process serves several functions. First, it helps you to flesh out and refine the idea behind the museum. Reaching out to experts and other institutions can help you better understand what you want to achieve. Wilson-Prangley said she spent the first year talking with people in Johannesburg and globally to make sure she was creating was “meaningful and useful” to the communities she wanted to serve. She met with people working as play therapists, artists, community leaders, child rights advocates and many others, to help refine the mission of Play Africa. She gives a lot of credit to children’s museums across the world —including museums in Illinois, Mississippi and El Salvador —in providing her with advice and time for her museum. The American Writers Museum approached other people who supported the museum, even winning a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant and helped the founders consult with writers, editors, academics, and others throughout the country. Cranston advised, “Involve as many people as you can so that you have as a broad a view you want to create as possible.”

Second, this learning phase also helps you learn about the particulars of running a museum. People can give advice on the actual structure of the museum (which is often related to the topic) or help you understand the operational needs of running an institution. Balch read everything she could find on her chosen topic of books. She listened to relevant talks online, visited museums and relevant cultural centres, and attended conferences. She reached out to people in her network, including Jim Richardson, Founder of MuseumNext, to figure the best direction for her museum.

Emma Balch started the Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye

Emma Balch started the Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye

Third, the information gathering stage also builds a network of supporters. That support can be future philanthropic support or it can be assistance of time or expertise, such as lawyer who can help with the legal aspects of forming the organization. These information gathering sessions can serve multiple functions at once. Talks with people about the mission can also be discussions about financial support as well. Moreover, these conversations can also provide moral and emotional support. Balch said that encouragement received from experienced museum professionals “gave [her] the confidence to pursue” The Story of Books without being part of an established institution.

After this networking stage, you should start to think about the structure of the museum. There are three critical areas to think about. The first is the legal structure of your organization that will be heavily dependent on the country’s laws that you are working in. Will your museum be a charity or nonprofit that relies on philanthropy? Or you may want to be a social enterprise? The Story of Books has chosen to be a social enterprise “using the market to achieve our social purposes, rather than to generate profit for profit’s sake.” The structure will also impact how you will fund your organization so it is important to think critically about those issues.

Once you’ve decided on the structure of your organization, you’ll have to file relevant paperwork with your local government, open bank accounts for handling funds, and other operational necessities. Wilson-Prangley noted that it took more time than she had anticipated and suggested working on it earlier in the process.

Second, there’s the question of building a formal board for your museum. Will your museum have a governing board or support boards filled with people who will operationally support the museum, ensure the smooth running of the institution, and facilitate the philanthropic goals? Wilson-Prangley advises including people “who would add value and shape the values we were trying to build.” Cranston notes how boards are instrumental because board members “were volunteering their time and money, really investing in the idea” before there was even a staff. He notes, “It was essential that it was a broad stroke of people with great expertise.” But a museum can have other board structures rather than something as formal. The Story of Books brings together people from five categories —museum/archives, publishing, education, artist/maker, not-for-profit— for every project, regardless of how large it is. Balch explained that she wanted to make the museum more informal and democratic, bringing in lots of voices and perspectives for every project.

Third, you need to decide how the museum will exist in the world. Will your museum have a physical location? Does your museum need a permanent location to open its doors? Or will you exist within the frameworks of other institutions? Or do you exist completely online? Or a hybrid of everything? Obviously, the actual format of your museum will have an impact on your funding needs; greater funds are likely needed for a permanent location compared to an online museum. A physical location can be great if you plan on programming and classes. This step along with the structure and funding of the museum will also impact the need for staff. If you have an online museum, you’ll need fewer staff members; if you have a big institution with lots of programming and departments, your needs will be much higher.

Most people think that a physical space is a necessity but it depends on what you want to do. Wilson-Prangley explains how they had planned for one space but the location fell through and along with it, some critical funding. They decided that they didn’t need a physical location to open Play Africa; instead, the city would become the museum. Play Africa found low cost spaces in communities and began prototyping in parks, schools, and many other locations. Wilson- Prangley explained: “we saw that kids didn’t need $26M to have good time, we just needed to give them an experience that they couldn’t get elsewhere.” They eventually got space in a former prison in Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. However, she noted that “once we let go of that idea of bricks and mortar, that really allowed us to discover who we could be.”

Climate Museum UK, on the other hand, is manifesting in different ways: a pop-up museum that can be taken to other institutions and spaces, a digital museum of climate art, ephemera and eco-design, as well as a Museums+Climate Tour for an institution or even for a town or city.

Location is an important consideration if you chose to have a physical establishment because it will impact traffic and visibility. Cranston explained that founders chose Chicago for the museum after reviewing locations across the US and wanted the museum to be on Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago. The Story of Books had a similar situation as Play Africa: Balch had a partnership with a business outside of town that would provide the location but it ended up not working out. Instead, The Story of Books found a home in Hay-on-Wye itself . Balch felt that the experience has made the museum stronger, benefitting from access to the wide range of people on the high street.

The next step is prototyping the museum with audiences. As mentioned before, Play Africa benefited from prototyping the classes and workshops all around Johannesburg to help the museum create relevant and meaningful content for its intended audiences. Before it opened its physical space, the American Writers Museum had a physical exhibit about six writers that traveled throughout Chicago to libraries and other public locations. Crayton explains that you should be able to react and “be willing to make changes based on your audiences’ reactions to the space” or programming. That way you can constantly evolve as an institution and create the best exhibits and programming for your audiences.

Play Africa in Johannesburg

Play Africa in Johannesburg

Getting the word out is another important consideration. How will you get audiences to come to your institution? By reaching out to communities like Play Africa did, you can really develop your audiences from there. Some institutions use marketing campaigns to spread the word while others may have limited budgets. But you’ll want to make sure your target audiences know you are there so they can come. Pricing, open hours, public transit options, etc. will have a big impact on this as well.

Then after all that hard work, you’ll open your doors, whatever that means for your institution. However, as your museum grows, you’ll constantly refine and expand your mission. Some processes will work while others won’t. The mission and the people who are supporting the institution—the staff, the boards, the network— will help in achieving your mission. The institution will likely change as you learn what works and doesn’t work. Several directors explained that flexibility is essential for the museum creating-process. Balch and Wilson-Prangley had to shift their vision when their locations fell through but both institutions grew stronger from the experiences.

The directors also acknowledged that the process can be rough. It’s harder to create something from scratch without the aid of a large institution or large donors who can provide the structure, manpower, and funding to make the dream a reality. When asked what she wished she had known when she started, Balch said, “I wish that I’d known that it’d be alright. There are moments where it’s not working out and you are not part of a big team. You’ve got to dig really deep and go: ‘I really do believe that this is worth continuing with.’”

Thank you to all four directors/presidents for talking with MuseumNext about starting a museum. Go out there and make your museum a reality.

About the author – Elisa Shoeberger

Elisa Shoenberger is an academic out of academia. She is a writer, historian, oral historian, musician, performer, and general troublemaker. She writes about the arts and travel for a number of publications in both the United States and Europe.

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