Money Matters: The Economic Value of Museums

Before the end of 2016 the Vastari Team travelled to Karlsruhe to attend the NEMO annual general meeting titled “Money Matters”.

As a private company trying to help museums make better use of their limited resources and streamlining communication using digital tools, we found this theme particularly compelling. Much to our surprise, the title turned up to be slightly misleading.

The conference offered an interesting overview how various museum associations represent their members on a European level and lobby on their behalf for funding allocation.  

One key point, which everyone was consistently highlighting, was that museums cannot be assessed solely on their financial performance as their main goal is to preserve, research and present cultural heritage.

herefore, it is hard for museums to accept that funds are allocated from governing bodies based on the revenue they generate. Public money is necessary for them to survive and directors often struggle to focus on both sticking to their mission, and running the institution to maximise profit in order to qualify for fund allocations.

Starting from this premise, we were excited to hear how museums would face the complex challenge of measuring their socio-economic impact, in order to shift the focus of the current conversation and demonstrate that funding should not be allocated solely on the basis of financial KPIs.

However, with the exception of Kimmo Levä from the Finnish Museum Association, very few speakers tried to brainstorm with their colleagues in the audience how museums’ impact could be measured in a different way.

Reiterating the argument that “museums are not businesses and should not be run as such” has not been a constructive argument so far. The NEMO conference could have provided the perfect avenue to discuss a different strategy with like-minded professionals.

Sadly, most participants did not seem ready to face the challenge of providing an alternative system to measure their achievements, so that budget could be allocated according on the basis of different criteria.

As the availability of funds is rapidly decreasing, it is a museum’s duty to find common ground and a language that works with the institutions responsible for allocating these resources, such as the EU or UN, understanding their point of view and KPI’s.

Meetings and conferences like NEMO should provide opportunities to address issues rather than just flagging problems. As rightly pointed out by Professor Pierluigi Sacco in his opening talk, museums should definitely share their point of view and find key elements that they all support and believe in. However, showing a united front is just the starting point, necessary before addressing decision makers who will have the power to change funding allocation criteria.  

The most interesting and innovative proposal in this respect came from Kimmo Levä, who suggested that as museums serve cultural, social and educational policies, they should seek funds from Culture, Social, and Educational budgets at national and international level.  

This proposal has not yet been tested when it comes to lobbying for funding, but Dr Levä seems to be on the right track in opening a dialogue based on premises that resonate more with the Finnish museums he represents.

It looks like European museums seem to have a long way ahead of them to start a constructive dialogue that could result in real change. Some good seeds have already been planted and hopefully the conversation will carry on beyond the two-day conference.