30 Jan

How to make museums more engaging? Develop Employee-Centered Museums First

Museums share collections and research for visitors. But, of course, they are also workplaces. People, who work at museums, create research and installations for visitors. This simple equation highlights an essential challenge for museums.

Unhappy People equals Unhappy Product

Unhappy people are some of the most generous folks around. They share their negativity with awful abandon. Their noxious fugue of disenchantment follows them, infecting those they contact. This attitude spills into all their actions and communications. In service organizations, these unhappy people suffuse every action with a patron. The sticky residue that disgruntled employees exude is hard to expunge from the workplace culture. Unhappy people, therefore, taint the product of the organization. But, this terrible plague of negativity is not the fault of the employees. Employee dissatisfaction and negativity is often a symptom of a challenged workplace culture.

A strong, positive workplace culture is like an inoculation against negativity. Good cultures put employees at the center. Starbucks recently invested profits back into their employees, in line with their belief that staff is the best brand ambassador. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, goes farther in describing the relationship between happy employees and happy customers:  “At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally on its own. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”

Museums might bristle at comparing themselves to a shoe company or a coffee shop. But, most visitors who walk through their doors have done business with Zappos or Starbucks. Visitors are used to experiences that “feel” a certain way. Therefore, museums with strong customer experience (born of equally strong staff experience) feel comfortable and resonate with visitors.

How do you make a positive work environment?

I have always been reticent to participate in anything billed as fun in print. If you need to say its fun, the likelihood is that others might not. Authentically enjoyable experiences are more expansive and cannot be encapsulated in that three-letter word.

Often workplace thinks of employee engagement as additive. In other words, they add a few workshops to improve an employee’s day, like a yoga experience or a trick-or-treat party. Experiences like this are not bad on their face. But, if the core culture is not solid, these are basically like adding frosting to a maggoty cake. Frosting will not make you want to consume even one rotten slice.

Developing a solid employee experience is not easy. As Casper mattress brand CEO Philip Krim says, “just because you say you’re fun, doesn’t actually mean you’re having fun. Paradoxically, being fun takes work.” While negative employee culture can easily spread like a virus on its own, positive employee culture needs a thoughtful, purposeful effort.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

First and foremost, the museum needs to make a commitment to place their staff first. This commitment can be lip-service. It needs to be shown in actions. A colleague once said, “organizations express the value they have for your work in cash-money.” Pay disparity in departments often results in real cultural problems. When an assistant in one department, say curatorial, is paid drastically more than another, say, registrars, the museum is highlighting that is not work but affiliation that matters.

The biggest challenge in terms of pay equity is between executive staff and junior staff. The museum is implying that executive staff is worth 50 times more than the junior staff by paying them 50 times more. This might be true, but if so, then junior staff should not be asked to check email at home, make on-the-spot customer decisions, and take work home. More likely, however, is that this pay disparity between executives and junior staff is disproportionate to the relative importance these roles have to the visitor experience. In other words, junior staff make or break visitor experience, and yet, do not receive commensurate pay for their value.

Show People & Tell People

Museums are tiered corporations, certainly. And, some decisions are easier made by a few people. But, most decisions are best made by those who know what they are talking about. The challenge with hierarchical (oligarchical) organizations is that decision-making power is reserved for the highest tier. As such, the deciders are often fairly far away from the results of the decision (and the need for the decision). Think of the decision on the size of the font. If the head designer is not in the galleries with the recently visually-impaired elderly patrons, she doesn’t have the pleasure of hearing the complaints about her tiny, tiny type. Ideally, delegate decision-making. Find ways that people can make decisions from their role that help their work. AND DON’T MICROMANAGE.

Some decisions, say financial ones, will need to be sent up that corporate ladder. The challenge for staff is not always that they have no say in the decision, but instead that they are ignorant of the reasons. When rolling out decisions, be truthful and transparent about the motivations.

Don’t Pull a Bait and Switch

There is nothing worse to me than the sickly sweet “friends.” I, personally, don’t care if you don’t like me. But, don’t be nice to get something from me, and then return to your usually nastiness. This is a habit many museum managers take with their junior staff. They roll out the pleasantries, commending the importance of a certain field. Then, internally, in upper-level meetings, say, they mention all their complaints about said department, staff-member, program. Firstly, museums are magnificent for their grapevines, keeping true, perhaps, to their academic roots. If you really want to spread a rumor, start it in a meeting considered confidential. Secondly, this type of behavior will erode staff culture faster than any other behavior.

Don’t be underhanded. If you don’t know what underhanded is, then you likely are. Don’t lie to your staff, either through omission or true falsehood. Don’t say one thing and do another. Don’t make rules and then exempt a certain sector of people (say curators). Don’t treat a set of your employees with kindness (the rest will assume contempt).


Back to our cake, rotten ingredients make a rotten cake, but the eater not the baker will be the one to truly suffer. Museum visitors suffer most from negative employee culture, which results in decreased or stagnant revenue, which will mean less money to operate the museum, which eventually is bad for the collection and the institution. In other words, centering your employees and ensuring their satisfaction is good for collections. Your investment in your employees will be returned one-million-fold in superior visitor experience, which is the sweetest reward.


25 Jan

What can museums learn from each other?

Scott Sayre, of the Corning Museum of Glass, once said, “Science Museums make complex ideas simple and art museums make simple ideas complex.” (Hear more from Scott here).

This comparison struck me as so incredibly powerful, not just for its succinctness, but also its insight. Both times of museums are two sides of one coin.  I have been mulling Scott’s observation around for a bit. If they are similar but different, what can they learn from the differences?

What have Art Museums got going for them?

Art museums develop interpretation in ways that encourage visitors to spend time with collections, by looking closely at the object. This invites people to go slowly and often along. The visual space is often sparse. Finally, the tone of the language is often geared for adults, with children’s/ family text being placed on ephemeral handouts.

In other words, Art Museums excel at the smart grown-up experience. In our society, there are few better examples of erudite and quiet.

What about the Science Museum folks?

Science museums embrace younger demographics with bold environments and active engagement. Their interpretation often asks questions and invites touching. Visitors learn in groups, either their families or non-family units. Visitors go to science museums to learn, but not necessarily for meditations or quiet.

So what?

Well, truthfully, all museums are seeing their attendance go down. In order to maintain and grow audiences, museums of all kinds should be looking to others to see what is working. Museums are after all evolved from a similar institution, as all the many dogs on earth are evolved from wolves.  This sharing across fields is certainly happening. Art museums have already seen the power of interactives, and environmental installations. Science museums could learn from art museums on ways to draw adults. But, this sharing could happen more often. The desire to share collections with visitors is greater than anything that separates us.

22 Jan

Weekly Work Tips: Growing Productivity

One of the best things about Monday morning is that you have a huge expanse of time ahead of you. You have the chance to feel productive and successful. At the beginning of Monday morning, anything is possible and the to-do list is a set of items that you will do.  But, Friday afternoon that same is a set of failed promises.

But, often, one’s perception of productivity (or lack thereof) is due to expectations. You are a person, not a machine (no matter what your boss or workplace thinks). Some people can finish things somewhat faster than others. For example, I am a very fast reader. So, if I need to take notes of literature review materials, I can finish the task in less time than someone else. And, of course, we all have our strengths. Ask me to make phone calls, and I will take double the time of a less chatty person. Even with these personal differences in skills and productivity, most people far overestimate what they can accomplish during the work week. I know that I do.

Here is a process that I am using to help myself, 1, finish the most important things first and, 2, be more realistic about what I can accomplish. Imagine rocks in a pot. These are the set of tasks that you can finish in a week. The largest rocks are the ones that you do first; these are the biggest, most important tasks. I find that I can accomplish three in a week. Then going up in importance, I lay out tasks of relative scale and importance. Things like email and voicemail are like the soil. You will need to add a bit per layer. But, not too much, or you won’t have space for the next layer of rocks.

The illustration here is my general work day: 3 big tasks, 5 medium tasks, and 10 small tasks. You might find that you have a different mix. Spend a week with this set of tasks. On Friday, if you have items left undone, draw a different planter on the following Monday. Also, you might have weeks that you HAVE to accomplish more. Draw a bigger planter that week.

18 Jan

Keeping it Together: Workplace Organization

For most people, work is more organizing (your space, your time, your emotions) than doing. The challenge is when you feel like the organizing so overwhelms your chance to focus on doing. I now work for myself, but work with a number of different institutions and people. I have noticed that, while everyone has their own process, most people’s feel derailed when the balance gets skewed. You have a week of deadlines when you put off the maintenance tasks and then someone sends you a nasty email, and, BOOM, stress overwhelms you. I have started setting a meeting with myself at the end of every week. I take about 30 minutes to reflect on the good, bad, and funny. This process has helped me maintain some semblance of order in the face of chaos. A weekly personal check-in can be particularly useful for those pesky emotional feelings that seep out of your workday and into your personal life.

16 Jan

Work Better: Foster your Curiosity

Two weeks into the year, and statistically speaking, you are probably a failure. Most people who make new year’s resolutions break then before their holiday decorations are down. Why is this?

Start with the moment you make your plan. You focus on what is wrong in your life. You don’t exercise. You are not good at keeping up with email. You are judgmental. Then, you come up with a solution to this problem. In the heady moments of December, hopped up on holiday candy & cosseted with your holiday social set, you pick something that will make you better. You make a pact with yourself that you will do X to fix Y. And, then the cold dawn of the new year arrives, you find the old you keep showing up.

Most people find extrinsic motivation much more powerful than intrinsic motivation. For example, you might not write a journal every day religious, but you will certainly send your daily update email to your boss if they ask you. In the case of your resolutions, you are setting yourself up for challenges by relying solely on intrinsic motivation and a lack of consequences.

Moreover, the premise of resolutions is problematic. You are not broken. Resolutions basically focus on making something negative better. Resolutions are basically a system set-up with a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that you can grow new skills. Rather than thinking you can’t draw, you can say that you will need to grow new drawing skills to feel more competent. Developing a growth mindset can be challenging for people who have long held negative feelings. For example, you might have spent a lifetime being told that you aren’t athletic. It’s hard to gain the momentum to find the exercise that makes you feel good (and athletic).

Curiosity is one of the best ways to transforming yourself from a fixed mindset. There is no way to fail at curiosity, as long as you try. There is no rubric. There is no wrong. Your resolutions are an attempt to move you from one point to another in your actions. Fostering creativity is about going from one unspeaking place to another unknowable space. Said differently, creativity is a way to allow your mind to move past the simple accrued actions of a fixed mindset.

Fostering curiosity is a way to allow your mind to wander past long-held ideas towards new ones. Regarding work, diversity of ideas is an essential way to find better solutions to your challenges. So, how can you foster curiosity? Try this simple exercise today.

  1. Grab a white sheet of paper.
  2. Turn on a song with lyrics that you know well.
  3. Write out the words that you hear in the lyrics.
  4. Once the song is over, turn off the music. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
  5. Now, look at the words. Let your mind think about the words and ideas. Write out all the first set of questions that come up.
  6. Then, look at those questions. What other questions come to mind?
  7. Keep going on this iterative question exercise until the timer goes off. You might feel stalled in the middle of the exercise. It is important to keep going past that point.

Once the time is up, you may look up answers to your questions. You don’t need to however. Curiosity is about wanting to know answers, but it isn’t always about finding the answer. Sometimes just asking the question is enough to change the way you think about questioning.



11 Jan

Inequity in The Arts & Culture Economy Equation


The arts and culture present some serious funding challenges for society and represent some serious inequities.


  • The top of the pyramids, like the directors of museums or the owners of galleries, make much more money than those starting out.
  • Many people cannot afford to work in the arts because of the low salaries.
  • Therefore, arts and culture often draw from upper middle class and upper-class sectors for staffing.


  • Donors give more money than the average customer.
  • However, donors and other upper middle class/ upper-class disproportionately consume the arts.
  • Arts and Culture are often too expensive for the middle class and lower middle class.
  • Institutions serve more people than they employ, meaning that while there isn’t large “profit, there is increased engagement.

So what? Well, it means that when arts and culture have inequity in their means of production, the public will question our costs. Art, for example, is a commodity. People know that works can cost millions of dollar. When museums suggest they need money to support their operations, this doesn’t compute.

Arts and culture are extremely costly to produce. Think of all of the people who need to paint sets for Broadway show, and this is not work that can be automated. And, while people might enjoy that show, they can’t see how the cost of painting that set goes into the ticket fee. They just see that they will be spending $200 of their hard earned money for a 2-hour show, for example. You don’t realize that your ticket is not even close to covering that set painter; the corporate donations are part of this. Obscuring the cost of production means that consumers don’t understand the importance of their contributions.

The inequity on the production side also has major problems. Arts and culture of all kinds have expanded drastically. The required contribution from consumers has increased to cover these costs.  But, finally, the perceived value of these experiences has not necessarily increased. There is more and more competition for the same consumers, just as they are less likely to go to events. In other words, organizations now cost more while often getting fewer consumers.  Arts and Culture need to make more to cover their higher costs but people are not necessarily more likely to spend it. Finally, the opt-in fee to start using arts and culture prices out people, meaning that a whole generation of potential future clients might miss out.

The inequities in our funding of arts and culture can have massive ramifications on the number of future consumers potentially rotting the future of the sector.

This post follows up a post about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new mandatory ticket fees: Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

09 Jan

Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

This post is a follow-up on a post last week about the Metropolitan Museum of Art instituting mandatory ticket fees

For many years, I ran a department in a free museum. Perennially patrons would ask for a free parking sticker stamp. If I had been a visitor, I, too, might have asked for this. After all, it is basically just a stamp. This museum was in a town where free parking was pretty common; people bristled at paying money for something they expected to be free. It was then that I had to share with patrons that our department, responsible for the education of the young minds exploring the museum, would be charged. Inevitably, the visitors would apologize, and exclaim their surprise that the department might accrue costs in this manner. In other words, people often don’t know the relationship between the money they spend at a museum and the programs they want to support.

You can’t blame them. Most of our American life is based on a colossal shell game.  In many states, education is funded through housing taxes, meaning that those with bigger houses pay more for the same education as those with small houses. Basically, many of us pay different amounts for the same thing. But, as with the case of my visitors asking for free parking, the nuances of funding are usually poorly understood.

Where does the money go?

Museums are exemplary at many things including obfuscating their processes. Visitors are not to blame for not understanding the cost of a day at the museum. And, the costs can be astronomical. Guards, HVAC, cameras, housekeeping, conservation, education…everything adds up. Rarely does a museum share how much it might cost per hour in a gallery. I assure you that any manager who has priced out opening a gallery for an hour for a private event knows full well the astronomical costs of maintaining a museum. I certainly still shudder at thinking of this cost. And, these are just the costs to run the museum on the daily basis.

Beyond that, museums have had many of the same problems of universities. The salaries of the top layer have grown faster than the amount of money coming in. They have expanded their facilities, incurring capital expenses, and then now have much larger operating incomes. Many of the expansions have resulted in revenue in the form of rentals (Weddings are the fairy godmothers of 21st-century museums). But, they have also increased the cost of upkeep. Think of the extra wear on the floors and of the bathrooms. Or don’t. (After nightmare experiences with duct tape, orange feathers, Bud Light cans, and rentals, I try not to.)

Finally, museums are now competing with everyone for audiences. You can easily stay home for entertainment. Or you can go to see street art for free. You see a public lecture by your favorite paleontologist at your library. You can use VR to see the moon and the stars at home. Educational leisure activities are widely available. As a result, museums have upped the ante, with costly traveling exhibits and events. In other words, museums need to put out money to get more people.

Think of it this way. Museums have more annual visitors that sporting events. I can’t say how much they earn annually in revenue, but I would wager that it is less than the NFL, NBA, and MLB at 28 billion dollars. So at sporting events, they have fewer people who spend more.

What does all this matter? 

Firstly, it means that the museum needs to make up money per visitor from other sources to subsidize the ticket. (See this interesting discussion from the director of the Met).

Donors are often very interested in seeing large visitor numbers. Many foundation reports require attendance numbers, not measures of satisfaction. They want to know that their 20 Million dollar gift towards that dinosaur exhibit was loved by 200,000 visitors. In other words, the museum actually needs visitors to keep coming in order to keep up the subsidy. And, here in the final challenge with this financial game of Twister, visitors will likely avoid the institution if there is no ticket subsidy.

Are Museums Worth it? 

If you imagine a graph of price vs value, in a free museum or a pay as you go, you have donors who are paying vastly more than the person who is entering free. (The orange line). In a mandatory ticket fee museum, basically, you are losing the people who were entering at free. To say this differently, if you charge a fee, you will lose people. Some will be lost if the cost feels onerous. Others will decide that they don’t value the experience enough to pay the base fee. Others will pay the fee and then spend additional money on donations, memberships, and in the store.

The challenge with charging people money is that they start thinking about the experience as a transaction. You will countenance lukewarm lemonade for 50 cents from a child’s corner stand. The great Michelin starred restaurant charging $15 will be kept to different standards.  In the case of the Metropolitan, (and previously at Newfields in Indianapolis and Art Institute of Chicago), people will now expect $25 worth of experience. Visitor experience will need to feel sterling. (I will say that with friends at three institutions I think that they will be able to meet these expectations).

But, this doesn’t actually respond to the issue of the worth of museums. The real challenge for museums is that the field hasn’t demonstrated their value to enough of American society. Attendance numbers continue to go down. We are neither popular nor populist. The ticket fees at the Metropolitan are certainly a challenge, but they are near the end of the wave of museums charging for experiences. In a perfect world, people would pay as much as they could afford to go to the museum. They would understand the value of the museum to their lives. But, how can they when museums aren’t consistently demonstrating their worth and remaining relevant to visitors?

If we as a field want more museums to be free, we need to make more people want them to be free. We need to make people crave museum experiences. Of course, people don’t crave that which they don’t want to consume. People will never fight for museums on a large scale if those spaces feel closed to them.


Truthfully, the whole ticket fee issue is a huge challenge.

  • Ticket fees help museum patrons cover a portion of the costs, like when you ask your child to pay for their own ice cream when you paid for the vacation. They serve as a sign to donors that visitors value the experience. They also allow museums to relieve some of the huge responsibility of raising donations.
  • But, big visitor numbers are needed to raise the donations, and there is a ticket cap at which point attendance decreases. With the scale of the museum market, this cap is often hard to pinpoint.

But, the issue of ticket fees is not about economics. It’s about value. I value the ability to stop by a museum for a short amount of time. I value the way that a free museum can be an extension of my social space. I value my free museum enough to be a member. I value my museum enough to spare precious family time. The depth of value is hard to develop when the ticket fee turns the museum experience into a once a year type of experience.

And, here is the crux of the challenge. We live in a society where a small sector values museums. When we add fees, we decrease the number of people who enter, and therefore we decrease the number of people developing deep bonds with our institutions. After all, it is hard to say if something is worth it, when you can’t afford to see it.


04 Jan

Let them Eat Cake (Instead of Visiting the Met): The Problems with the Metropolitan Museum’s Ticket Fee

The Metropolitan Museum announced on January 4 that the ticket fee would be mandatory for non-residents.

There are many issues that this change bring up for me.

Who is the Museum for?

This move to make the fees mandatory only makes explicit certain issues. A large percentage of the Met’s visitors are tourists, who only attend the institution sporadically. They are people who have the finances to pay for a trip to New York, and the $25 per person fee.

More people go to museums than sporting events. Sporting events are extremely costly. So, museums can certainly charge more for attendance, right? Well, here is the challenge. Museum can charge. And those who can pay, will. But, in the long term, how will this effect visitorship?

As a museum professional, I love a quick stop in a museum. Show my creds, and I can pop in for 15 minutes. I don’t need to spend a whole day there. It can be a quick recharge, not unlike going into a coffee shop, a park, or a library. The museum, for me, is not a special occasion, but instead part of my leisure ecosystem. Special occasion events, like the orchestra, are things that I might spend money to experience, but always not integrated into my life.

But, for most people in America, despite the impressive statistic that people go to museums more often than sporting events, museums are not integrated into their lives. And, museums don’t do a good job integrating museums into their lives. The Met seemed like a special occasion space for many people, a place for a once in a lifetime visit. Or a place that they wouldn’t visit. The sector who didn’t visit will grow, but the sector that is willing to visit for a fee will stagnate or decrease.

Value vs. Cost

Value and cost are two different things. Value is a feeling; cost is an amount. You can certainly value something that has no cost. And, similarly, you might pay something thinking that its value is far more than the cost. If you pay more than you perceive the value, you are likely to avoid that mistake again.

This differentiation is important when considering the fees at museums. Ticketing is a super complicated issue. As Pablita said:

There are so many sectors in the museum visitorship and for them the cost and value have different meanings:

  • The invested visitor/ repeat visitor: Free museums are ideal in the mind of those who understand the value of visiting museums. For them, the cost is far less than the value—it’s a steal. Incidentally, these are often the museum’s cheerleaders. These are the ones who are selling your institution with word of mouth and social engagement. They are working for you for free!
  • For the well-heeled museum visitor: There are those who feel like they should go to the museum. Maybe they are only in town once a year and know that a visit is an important box to check. Maybe they come in every holiday season with their mother. But, since its free, they will probably put it off for the theater or the orchestra. In other words, they are trying to use their leisure time for the thing that seems the most important. They are also unconsciously seeing a relationship between cost and value. This is likely b/c they see free as being equivalent to always available.
  • For those who are not coming to the museum: But, for those who don’t feel welcome at the museum, or don’t know what they would do at the museum, this cost is not an inducement. They see zero value in the museum for them, and with the cost of time, the museum is a bad deal. Visiting the museum, even if it is free, still seems like a ripoff.

What does this mean? Well, frankly, it doesn’t mean that museums should charge. It means that museums need to understand that fees mean different things to different people.  And, when blanket fees appear, elements of their visitorship are affected differently.

  • The well-heeled might think alright this year I’ll buy a ticket to this museum. But, be warned: they might also think not this year because this other leisure experience is a better value.
  • The invested visitor might decide that they can no longer afford to attend, and you lose their free word of mouth.
  • Those who are not coming will still not come.

The last two groups are the particular challenges. You are easily turning off those who love you, like a teen who only wants the popular boy and ignores the loyal friend who loves you despite your ugly pink dress. Those who aren’t coming to the museum learn that they were right. The museum isn’t for them. The museum is basically signaling its values. The museum values those who have $25 for this visit. If you don’t have that money or don’t see the value of that cost, then you won’t be part of the museum’s audience. The museum seems to be expressing that they value those who are willing to pay.



The Met said they were making this decision to assuage budget problems. This $6M dollar is like using the coins in your couch to pay a year’s back rent on Brooklyn apartment. This move though isn’t about the revenue, but a move by the leadership to show their board that they are making the smart fiscal choices (without actually taking a salary hit). It’s a symbolic move, like two very wealthy groups playing chess with the serfs.

There would have been many other ways to make these 6 Million dollars. They could ask development to raise this money (plus the cost of development working those extra hours), and tell the world that they now have free attendance thanks to Ms. Richette Moneybags. I assure you that they would receive as much in pay as you go from daily attendees, and they would have $12M. Not to mention the people who would walk into the store to spend part of the $25 they were just saved from thanks to Ms. Moneybags. (And while cafes usually lose money for museums, stores can bring in money.)

They could have said that they are using this $6 Million to start a fund to help those who don’t have the funds to come. And, if they actually did said outreach, they would also find themselves receiving more donations from their visitors.

Or they could do what they did, which was to show their cards. In this case, they showed that they wish to maintain their existing aristocratic underpinnings and funding structures. They want to maintain their existing visitor demographic. And, they want their future to be one where the Met is a place that is only for some.