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Report: NEMO Annual Conference 2016. Letís make museums great again!

This year’s Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) conference took place November 10 – 12 at Baden State Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. 160 Participants from 36 countries came together to exchange about promising approaches on „Money Matters: The Economic Value of Museums”. Only a few of them dealt with new funding opportunities in the first place. Instead, the conference opened new perspectives on measurement, cooperation and communication as premisses for a better and long-term financial coverage. 

Most museum professionals would agree to the statement that “money matters” – while thinking of the growing number of tasks or the budget cuts museums have to deal with and which affect their structures, programmes and activities. At the same time, most of them would state that the value of museums should not be constrained to their market value, effectiveness or self-financing ratio. For that reason, issues such as purposeful communication, new kinds of cooperation with different stakeholders and special formats for different communities were the central aspects of the conference. These approaches seem to be much more comprehensive and promising ways to help museums face current challenges and emphasize their impact on society than the pure concentration on new funding opportunities.

Museum yesterday, today and tomorrow

A key aspect of the conference was the development of a new self-understanding and self-confidence of museums that comprises not only the quality of their content, but also their increasing activity in fields like education, tourism, regional development and societies or economy. Regarding such crossovers, cooperation in these fields are urgent for museums to adopt necessary competencies, develop sustainable business models, and become pro-active in engaging communities to make their impact measurable beyond financing. 

Especially, the keynote by Professor Pier Luigi Sacco on "How do museums create value?" shed light on this perspective. He showed that some of the values museums create are changing and that these changes have an influence on which aspects of museum work should be measured to emphasize their current role in society. For him, the important steps were first the museum as a temple of knowledge, secondly the emergence of the cultural industries including the expanding of art markets and audience, and the expectation to be entertaining, and just recently the emergence of content communities and the change of the separation between the passive audience and the active content producer to a relationship of participation, audience engagement and social impact. In this context, Sacco made clear, although the values museums are referred to depend on different aspects like political circumstances or personal attachment, “creating value means creating meaning first”. 

Find the gap!

This statement implies that the image of museums as temples of knowledge may be still important today on some levels, but it is almost obsolete on others, where the significance of new, evolving value is increasing. Thus, the different impacts of museums cannot be measured in terms ofthe same numbers. But how can museums show their successes to decision makers then and get out of the box, in which policy and economy put them? For Sacco, the answer is that they have to find fitting operating figures for economic values, wellbeing, touristic revenue and local development, artistic and academic quality or creative participation. Richard Naylor in his talk “Measuring the value of museums: options, tips and benefits” introduced the operating figure social ROI that is used by a lot of NGOs. It includes an organisation’s benefit for individual stakeholders and aspects like how an organisation or program in fact improved the live quality of a neighbourhood or a specific group (see our introduction on measuring effective altruism). Naylor further added microeconomic theories like revealed and stated preferences that measure the worth consumers or visitors are accrediting to e.g. a museum visit and how this worth is influenced by different circumstances or often unconscious factors. 

In his presentation “The results speak for themselves, so why isn’t anyone listening?”, Kimmo Levä from the Finnish Museums Association also emphasized the significance of the right numbers and a purposeful communication between museums and decisions makers. Although museums have an impact on the social, educational and economic sector, they don’t speak about it – thinking that underlining these impacts means neglecting the quality of core museum tasks. But, he asked, what is wrong about being referred to being good for health, reducing stress, making less anxious or less lonely? Studies from Finland, UK or the US found that all of these are values museums actually create – what in turn implies that they should get funding from the social, economic and education sector as well. Another example by Levä was the fact that a lot of museum visitors belong to older generations. This can be seen as an advantage as well as these visitors usually have time, money, and interest, but are mostly disregarded due to competing free-time activities they occupy. Thus, an increasingly important task is to find such blind spots in current museum funding structures and use them as arguments. 

Professor Beatriz Plaza from the University of the Basque Country also concentrated on gaps and limits to growth. In her presentation “A critical reflection of Guggenheim’s return on investment in Bilbao” she showed this museum’s ROI on overnight stays of foreign visitors and made clear that a new museum in a small city can have much more impact than another one in a big city. Thus, the limits to growth count for material goods like number of museums, but not for immaterial goods like museum visits. Plaza’s approach also counts for the presentation of the museum’s collections online that – based on open and user-friendly displayed copyrights like Andrea Wallace presented in her workshop – helped the long-term branding of the Guggenheim Bilbao, its attraction to foreign as well as local visitors and the transparency about its work and research. 

Museums learning from external points of view

The following presentations introduced different examples for spill over effects for museums, e.g. between the Ars Electronica – a museum on digital art and media culture based in Switzerland – and partnering companies or between the European Commission’s Chinese Year 2018 and cultural institutions. Dorota Keller-Zalewska brought up the example of the award-winning Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews that is based on a public private partnership model where the partners not only give money, but also are successfully integrated in management and staff decisions. And Thierry Baujard emphasized in his workshop that private investors interested in museum work not only like to invest in projects, but also in long-term structures – an approach that could help a lot of institutions – and see the value of museum’s intellectual and creative property and impact as more central than pure scalability. Nonetheless, museums would have to develop new ways of revenue for them as well since at some point they want the money back that they invested.

By presented the findings of the Think Tank Creative Museums on museums and creative industries, Ineta Sīmansone (see her article in Arts Management Quarterly No 125) and Chris Bailey made clear that a long-term cooperation between the two fields is still rare. Although both are engaging mainly in immaterial goods and although there are already a lot of common projects like digital products or events they almost know nothing about each other. Thereby, financing is not the only barrier. Another one is a lack of communication about problems and failures on the one hand and about potentials e.g. for reaching new audiences on the other. To foster more cooperation in the future, the Northern Ireland Museums Council has developed a toolkit that wants to help museums benefit from becoming part of the creative industries themselves. Paul Spies, Director of the Stadtmuseum Berlin and chief curator for the state of Berlin in the Humboldt Forum, emphasized exactly that when he saysthat “a museum can be entrepreneurial without being or being measured as a company.” “Museums must deliver a message. It's about reaching out of their buildings and being a place to meet and talk and take responsibility.” 

Museums learning from each other

For Spies, another way to benefit from spill overs is to hire international staff and thereby exchange experiences and know-how. Björn Stenvers from Amsterdam Museums Foundation showed that the cooperation between the city’s museums is not just about marketing or image building, but also fosters the exchange of knowledge and competencies. Thus, the cooperation reduced competitiveness and saves time and resources for every partner. The same counts for the Museums Pass Musées that gives locals who are travelling the upper Rhine region entrance to 330 museums in three countries, like Jan Merk explained. And Sharon Heal, Director of the UK Museums Association, added that especially in times of crisis and financial cuts, cooperation between museums and the development of new common concepts is urgently needed. After the latest cuts in the UK even successful museums had to close. This situation made clear that securing access for every citizen is more important than competing with each other. Additionally, the UK Museums Association fosters museums as educators in fields like crafts to create job opportunities. For Heal, courage, acting and living the values museums want to convey are the keys to a sustainable future of the whole sector. 

Conclusion

With working groups and workshops on topics as applications for EU funding or guides to crowdfunding for museums, financial aspects of course were part of NEMOs Annual Conference as well. But altogether, the presentations and talks on “the economic value of museums” concentrated on new ways of measurement, cooperation and communication to foster a proactive, positive and strong European museum landscape. This can be the basis for museums to successfully re-position themselves and gain stronger arguments for a better and long-term financial coverage. 

The conference storify can be found here

Author/Source: Kristin Oswald is chief online editor at Arts Management Network.
Management Topic: Financing & Sponsorship
Cultural Area: Museum+Visual Arts
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Dec 08, 2016