Bringing Enterprise to Museums

Risk. Money. There is a widespread view that these two words are at the heart of enterprise. But if you are interested in public service, as the majority of museum employees are, these are amongst the least positive words in the vocabulary. Although most of us would like more money, and few of us think of ourselves as being risk-averse, from a museum professional perspective there is a very real problem with these concepts. Most museum folk would say that an emphasis on making money is at odds with a museum’s reasons for existing; its focus on access, learning and the greater Public Good. And most have learnt the hard way that if you take risk and it comes off, someone else gets the credit; while if you take risk and it does not work out, you get the blame. People make museums great. People do not work in museums for the money, and they learn pretty quickly once they start work that risk is painful. So it should be no great surprise to managers and advisors if museum employees switch off when they talk about enterprise. Enterprise and the museums sector are not necessarily happy bedfellows.

But we have to talk about enterprise. Public funds are running dry. This is not just one of those tedious belt-tightening phases national and local government goes through on a ten year cycle. This is a fundamental shift, the result of global economic factors and really difficult budgeting challenges closer to home. The UK population is getting older; and older people are much more expensive on the public purse. Discretionary spend items – like museums – just do not stand a chance when care and health budgets are under such enormous pressure. So museums must either downsize significantly, close, or find alternative sources of income.

Peter Latchford says “Museums must be open to enterprise” as well as their cultural offering

This is the “meteorite approaching” argument. The case is simple. You may not relish the idea of being more commercial, in the way that you may not be best pleased if a meteorite were spotted on a collision course with the earth. But you can either do something about it, or roll over and die. The moral case is irrelevant; this is an issue of survival.

This is an argument that works well with some museum employees, particularly those who have had some commercial experience or responsibility, or who have struggled with the dead hand of political control. But for many, for the museum romantics, it can simply entrench their existing antipathy. If, subliminally, they see enterprise as immoral, then survival may be less attractive an option than staying true to their values, even if it leads to closure or redundancy.

For these people, we need to help them reframe their perspective, to help them see the topic as a force for potential good. Here it is in outline of the core argument.

First, we need to rethink their prejudice against enterprise. “Enterprise” does not mean “ruthless private sector profiteering”. The most astonishing achievements of mankind are examples of civic or civil enterprise: the NHS, the Great Wall of China, sewerage systems, the UK road network, our continued (almost) compliance with the highway code. Enterprise is about getting things done; it is not about making money. Even in the private sector, as any truly effective business person will tell you, business success comes from a focus on providing great service, not on an obsession with making money. If a museum is not being enterprising, it is not thinking about how best to serve the needs and interests of its visitors and stakeholders.

Second, we need to reflect on what is happening to the way we work. Most people, museum sector or not, are working differently from the way their counterparts worked even twenty years ago. Organisations – structured, hierarchical, controlled entities, comprising insider workers and outsider customers/suppliers – are creatures of the last century. The organisation is effective when the outside environment is predictable and when information flows are slow and constrained. But the twenty first century is characterised by chaotic environments and overwhelming information availability. Old-style corporate structures cannot cope with this new world. In most settings, the work is now done by fluid networks of people, coalescing around specific projects, tasks or products, then reforming when the next challenge arises. They may well work for several organisations. Over our working lives, without much fanfare there has been a fundamental shift in loyalty. We are more invested in our networks and proven information sources than we are in our employers. The organisation may once have been a “safe” place, the adult to our employee-as-child, but it is no longer. Our security comes from our individual competences, from our networks, and from taking the risk of trying new things that build on both. Whether we like it or not, we are all of us in a risk-rich environment.

Third, we need to rehabilitate our relationship with money. We need to wrestle ownership of the concept back off the froth merchants of the city and see money for the brilliant invention that it was. It is simultaneously a) the mechanism by which society recognises how much value you (or your service, or your product) are adding to other people and b) a way of freeing this assessment up from the inefficiency of barter. In short, if people do not pay for something, they do not value it. Where someone simply cannot pay for what a museum can give them, they should none the less be aware of the investment that another player (state or philanthropist) is making on their behalf. Museums should be strongly asserting – to visitors and funders – the very real value they add to society and to the individual. Note that, at the start of this piece, I said museum spend was “discretionary”. This is simply wrong. How optional is a sense of self, of belonging? How important is serendipitous discovery? How crucial are ideas? If the NHS is the most extraordinary gift our predecessors gave us, museums have a fair claim to being in a strong second place.

The subject of this piece is enterprise. You may be wondering why my emphasis has been on persuasion. Why talk about making the enterprise case, instead of dealing with the mechanisms of enterprise, the projects that will generate the greatest profits?

The reason is this: there is only one enterprise lever that a museum manager can pull, and that lever is labelled “enterprising environment”. You simply cannot predict whether a specific product, service or project will work in a given museum. You must therefore create the conditions in which people feel safe trying things, and seeing how customers react. If museums see enterprise not only as necessary, but as directly in line with what they care about, then great things happen every time.