Opinion: James Bradburne

James Bradburne, Issue 39, p11, Autumn 2007
The past three decades have seen a museum building boom and visitor numbers reaching giddy heights. But there are signs that rosy statistics mask a troubling decline in visits to many middle-aged, middle-sized institutions in particular, which are often unable to generate the exhibitions, whether of old masters or Impressionist water lilies, said to be necessary to keep visitors' appetites whetted.

Regardless of a museum's size or location, there are widespread problems caused by falling income as the public sector reduces its commitment to museums and the private sector fails to support their core activities. When funding is available, it is often a one-off investment linked to a new building - a 'poison pill' that leaves museums with higher future operating costs but no guarantee of future revenue.

With certain notable exceptions, the visitor numbers generated by new buildings start to drop off soon after the third year - the well-documented 'S-curve'. The increased operating costs of new buildings combined with drastically reduced visitor revenue can injure - or even kill - a new institution, and paralyse an older one.
The Louvre, for example, was forced to keep over a quarter of its collections closed to the public due to the high cost of extra staff following its billion-dollar expansion in the 1980s.

It is time to declare that in their present form most museums are unsustainable. The museum market is oversaturated, operating costs are high relative to earned revenue, and productivity in such a labour-intensive activity cannot be enhanced by infusions of technology - it takes the same number of curators to change an exhibit as it did 50 years ago.

So what is the future of museums? How should they respond? First, they must scale down their ambitions, and avoid confusing growth with health. By restricting activities to 'core business', operating costs can also be greatly reduced.

Many medium-sized municipal museums - large warehouses of city treasures, poorly maintained and understaffed - pay a large premium to keep the doors open to snag the few hundred visitors who might wander in on a rainy weekday.

But must all museums be open to all the public all the time? Certain specialist museums might do well to consider being open on an appointment-only basis or one day a week rather than chasing increased visitor numbers to cover high operating costs.

Perhaps other museums can be consolidated, their collections joined, with the consequence of greater rotation and greater perceived change? Surely some museums should be allowed to swallow others, and still others become extinct.

Second, museums must aim for institutional independence and long-term financial health based on a mix of sources, without becoming dependent on any single revenue stream. Whether a small community museum or a large tourist destination, the museum can survive only as long as it is managed as an autonomous whole.

So the key factors on which the museum stands or falls - an articulated vision, a motivated staff and a sustainable financial strategy - must be co-ordinated within a single, coherent, transparent administrative framework.

Museums where the administration is separated from the leadership, where financial decisions are taken independently from personnel ones, where political influences shape the museum's policies, are destined to be structurally weak, ineffective and fraught with conflicts of interest.

Third, the museum should return to a focus on its core values in the interests of generating a slowly growing base of users, and not obsess about getting more one-off visitors. Each museum should be encouraged to find its niche.

Those with educational staff should use them to create programmes for schools; those overstocked with scholars should publish. I would also argue that a museum's future is also based on its collections. A museum is a resource that should serve a broad base of users. Like a piazza, it is a place that should sustain the broadest possible range of activities related to the experience and enjoyment of its collections.

We must look towards 'lightweight', flexible projects that take advantage of the museum's collections, not heavyweight blockbusters that disrupt the museum's priorities and distort its identity.

Museums must return to being learning hubs, not destination attractions. Only then will they be sustainable and remain a vital societal resource - a multi-faceted piazza for the learning society.

James Bradburne is the director general of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, Florence