We keep hearing the cries from museums and historical sites. We have no money! The economy is terrible! We are getting no donations! But is it us who are putting ourselves out of business?
It sounds ridiculous. Every historical site staff member or volunteer I have ever met worked very hard and was dedicated to their site. So what is the problem?
There are many historical sites trying to be saved today and more and more each year and in this economy, pleas for funding are coming from charities, schools and clubs. Our historical sites and museums have long relied on the gracious donations. While this has worked in the past, in this economy, people are watching their money and trying to get the best value for their dollar. Your site needs to offer something to the public in exchange for their money.
Many sites tout their tours, their displays and their historical interpreters. I no longer think that this is enough. With so many sites in competition with each other and so much "historical exchange" between sites. Something must be done to set yourself apart.
Many sites agree and have tried to "update" their museums with multimedia displays and movies. These are great for the younger generations, but honestly can't compete with anything the kids are carrying around in their pockets. If anything, multimedia belongs on your website where your guest can get excited for a trip to your site and a little bit extra if they want some more after they visit.
Tours and historical interpreters are great but they are not the draw they used to be. Almost every historical sites offers these services. Just ask a reenactor or living historians how many more events there are compared to only a few years ago! Also, the fact that many site workers work at multiple sites and the historical community fosters an exchange of knowledge that can lead to all sites having similar offerings for guests.
So what can sites do to stay above water?
-Specialize: Is there anything special about your site? Is there something that could be done there that couldn't be done somewhere else? Don't avoid the "exchange" but think if there is a way you could offer something differently than other sites do. It's hard to think outside the box when we are all trying to teach similar things.
-Collaborate: Instead of fighting the competition, is there anyway to join forces? Can you have guests grind mill at a local site and have them bake it at yours? Can you give them a discount for visiting more than one site? Sites in my area have a special booklet and individualized stamps that visitors can "collect" by visiting all of the sites in the area.
-Invest in yourself: I know, there's no money, but if you run bare bones and never put any money back into your site, you will eventually burn out as well as give your site a bad reputation.
-Listen to your visitors: Try to collect as much feedback as possible and use it to get better. Also analyze trends and use them to offer more of what your visitors want and less of what they don't. Some of your offerings may not be worth the money you spend on them.
-Use your staff and volunteers. I think this is the biggest mistake that many sites make. You may think you are using your staff but there is probably a multitude of things you don't know about each member. You probably have someone collecting tickets or serving food who actually has a hobby that people would pay to learn or see. You might have a worker who loves gardening and would love to create a new gardening program or someone who collects period beer recipes and likes to make them. Your staff can help you differentiate your offerings. Not every site can let visitors smell a variety of period beverages.
We all want all sites to prosper. Do you have any experiences with this or any tips to help museums or historical sites?