Museums are sitting on an untapped gold mine

On 15th of January Artnet’s columnist Tim Schneider published some thoughts on why it is a taboo to talk about the value of works in museums’ storages.

There seems to be a long standing tradition of museums only focussing on their works’ cultural value rather than the financial one, which goes back museums’ mission and purpose.

That said I find it hard to understand, particularly when money does become an issue that prevents an institution from fulfilling their mission, why cultural and financial value are still looked at with a binary approach and conceived as in strong opposition.

If around 90% of museums’ holdings are in storage, it is fair today that public institutions’ are not tapping into the vast majority their collections’ cultural or financial value.

Aside for a few exceptions, most storage spaces are not easily accessible to the public, meaning large portions of the collections remain unseen. At the same time they fail to attract any visitors and in that way generate any revenue that can fuel museums’ operations.

Though implementing a touring programme might not be simple, this could be a solution that unlocks values on both sides: making the collections available and generating revenue that can be used to fund operations or new temporary and touring shows.

A virtuous example to illustrate this point is Brury’s exhibition ‘Toward Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art’, which toured to 6 venues in China starting in 2012, back when only national institutions had worked in Asia.

Their website reads “The success of the tour on almost every level has vindicated the organisers of what was considered by many at the outset to have been a 'risky' venture for a consortium of small museums”.

To date this still remains an isolated case, which speaks volumes to the way in which museums are shying away from being entrepreneurial even when the opportunity can be both financially and mission driven.

When touring most museums only rely on a roster of partners with whom they have a long standing relationships, limiting their opportunities of making their collection known to larger and more diverse audiences.

The main obstacle I have been able to identify specifically when looking at travelling exhibitions is the lack of knowledge on different operating models and of a process to vet potential partners.

Once more it is striking to notice that whilst museums are very aware of their mission to share knowledge about their collections and educate their visitors, they still seem to have a long way ahead of them when it comes to share knowledge about how the operate with their peers to facilitate collaborations.
I am left with a big question: is the lack of an avenue to share and connect the only obstacle that is stopping museums to start tapping into their resources?