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Innovating with digital to find new revenue stream for Museums

In the UK this week, the Culture Minister Oliver Dowden reportedly told museum directors to be more commercially minded, with one suggestion being that they needed to monetise their websites.

Even without this outside intervention, I think museums are looking at how to increase income. I recently saw one museum pro asking how much money their organisation might be able to make from YouTube adverts (answer not much).

I do think that there are some fantastic opportunities for museums to use digital to rethink existing activities and generate more revenue online.

Rethinking Membership

Membership is a big thing these days, from Netflix to Spotify, everyone has monthly subscriptions. My wife even has a monthly subscription for socks!

Of course, museums have had membership programmes for years, but these are very centred on visiting the institution. Living in the wilds of Northern England, a £90 membership of Tate doesn’t appeal because I might only make it through their doors twice a year.

Of course, with nearly 9 million people in London, perhaps Tate don’t need to worry about the rest of the UK. Still, I’d argue that as a museum of international standing, they are missing an opportunity.


Forget Northern England; the right offer could attract a significant global membership.

I’d suggest that the answer is a digital membership which allows me to log in and view exclusive member content: interviews, films, curator tours, and giveaways.

Brooklyn Museum had a digital membership for a while ten years ago, and I remember one of the perks being an exclusive artists print. That’s content worth the subscription.

Patreon the website that helps creators to make money through micropayments from supporters has some other great examples. Like space photographer Andrew McCarthy who is charging fans $6 a month for exclusive phone wallpapers of his amazing photographs. 

Rethinking memberships for the digital age is a massive opportunity for the sector. Create a new offer that someone is prepared to subscribe to for £10 a month.

School Trips

What do school trips look like in the next year? I think they’ll be pretty much nonexistent here in the UK because of health and safety concerns.

We’ve seen many cuts to education teams, and this is probably in some part down to museums guessing that income from schools is going to be wiped out.

I think there is a huge opportunity to rethink school trips using digital tools. How can we take the museum experience into the classroom or home? Is that with object boxes, Virtual Reality, 3D printing, film, audio or games?


Are telepresence robots that kids can control remotely the answer? 
Van Abbemuseum was offering these before the crisis and charges €40 for a guided tour.

What in classroom activity can museums create that have enough value that parents will pay for their children to participate? If you’re an educator, I think there is a huge opportunity here.

I’d hope that museums would make such digital services accessible to schools in deprived neighbourhoods. Look at KaiXR in the United States, which was set up to make school trips available virtually for kids in schools that couldn’t afford a real visit.

Online Course

Online learning is a big business with over 100,000 courses available on one of the biggest online course websites alone. 

What knowledge do you have in your organisation that could be turned into a course? The V&A moved it’s adult learning online during the pandemic and as Dr Helen Charman explains in the presentation below this generated revenue and grew their international reach.

The audience for digital courses is global, so something very niche can work. If your museum has one of the leading experts on early locomotives, there will be enough train enthusiasts to sell it out many times over.

Once a course has been created, you can use an online course platform like Podia or Teachable to automate everything.

The biggest challenge with museums producing online courses is probably marketing them. How will you find your audience?


There is more pressure than ever on museums to generate revenue online. I think there are some exciting opportunities to make money and keep key staff (like educators) on staff through this challenging period.

I also think there are opportunities for commercial companies to fill the skills gaps to make these ideas a reality. For example, if I were running a museum audio guide company right now, I’d be exploring how to take those stories out of the museum and into classrooms.

Lots of innovation has happened in 2020, and I’m excited to see what happens next.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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