Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNEwS

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.

SOURCES:

Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Haunting Attractions for the Halloween Season

Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986.
aw 0323, 1963.
Watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Collection of Steven Day, New York, NY

Image from the Minneapolis Institute of Art from the Supernatural America exhibit.

It only takes a few steps into a pharmacy or grocery in the month of October to see the impact of Halloween on the public. Aisles are filled to the brim with candy, fake spiderwebs, and gregarious costumes in anticipation of a raucous holiday season. As the town of Salem prepares for a record-breaking month of tourism, one thing is abundantly clear: mainstream interest in the occult, the scary, and the supernatural is stronger than ever.

Can this affection for the macabre manifest in the museum world? Is it possible to run exhibitions on the things that go bump in the night? Would people view a museum as the authority on the supernatural? In short, yes! Many museums have capitalized on the paranormal. Some institutions have featured supernatural themes in rotating exhibitions while others dedicate their entire exhibition capacity to allegedly haunted objects. For example, the recent traveling exhibit Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art enjoyed well-attended displays at the Toledo Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Speed Art Museum.

Of course, a bizarre and subversive topic like the supernatural lends itself to dramatic and otherworldly interpretations, with many institutions blurring the line between museum and haunted house. But rather than dismiss these unconventional museums for their unorthodox methods, we should approach them with curiosity—they are tapping in on an interest that is in high demand. If these institutions can generate excitement for visiting exhibits, they are making an invaluable contribution to the museum and historic house community.

Here are some haunting attractions to enjoy this Halloween:

Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada may look like a haunted mansion from the outside, but it holds hundreds of artifacts relating to true crime and the supposed supernatural. With thousands of positive reviews, it is clear that the Haunted Museum is providing an exciting and memorable visitor experience.

The Paranormal Museum in Ashbury Park, NJ is a popular roadside attraction in the New Jersey community. Combined with the Paranormal Books & Curiosities shop, the Museum is home to many haunted artifacts and ghost-hunting equipment.

Of course, historic Salem makes this list with the Salem Witch Museum, one of many occult museums and historic houses in this scenic New England town. At the Witch Museum, visitors can expect to learn about the origins and impacts of the Salem Witch Trials and will be encouraged to consider more modern iterations of this community-wide panic.

Image courtesy of Save Our Cemeteries.

No list of haunted attractions would be complete without mention of New Orleans. For those seeking a more interactive activity, a cemetery tour is the perfect fit. Explore the historic crypts and mausoleums of Orleans parish while learning about some of the cemetery’s most prominent residents. Tours conducted by Save Our Cemeteries, Inc are historically accurate and mutually beneficial—proceeds earned from tours are reinvested into the critical preservation of these historic landmarks.

Happy Halloween from the Tufts Museum Studies Program—we hope you have the happiest and safest of holidays!

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Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History & Museum Studies

Tufts University

Membership Models for the Modern Museum

For visitors seeking immersive exhibitions or riveting programming, memberships may seem to be the least exciting offerings at museums. That’s no surprise—without exhibits or programs, memberships would have little value to museum visitors. Internally, however, memberships can be one of the most integral components to a museum’s operations, and the structure of these programs can reveal the institutional priorities and value with which museums hold their members.

For museums with an established membership base, memberships can be a critical source of operating funds. Members are, after all, repeat donors. Other fundraising efforts often produce restricted funds that can only be used for specific projects (often exhibitions, programming, or DEAI), whereas unrestricted revenue allows museum leadership to apply the funds to other underfunded initiatives such as staffing or facilities maintenance. This study by Colleen Dilen shows just how large an impact members have. Many members are unaware that their support allows their museum to keep the lights on, so it is important that museums express their gratitude to their members.

Valuable benefits are critical to a sustainable membership program.

While acknowledgement letters and other expressions of appreciation are important means of recognizing members for their contributions, studies have shown that members feel more fulfilled by meaningful benefits such as museum shop discounts, complimentary admission, and members-only programming. These deliverables can come at a cost to museum operations, showing that membership programs are not just another method of donor cultivation, but a more involved investment into key community relationships. Many museums struggle to fund staffing positions that can dedicate sufficient time to membership, meaning these programs should be integrated into feasibility studies and strategic plans to ensure the development of a sustainable program.

The ideal membership program has options for both guests seeking affordable experiences and patrons seeking philanthropic opportunities. An interesting study by Audesh Paswan and Lisa Troy examines the many motivations of members, and museums must cater their levels to match these interests. Membership levels that are too expensive may alienate a significant portion of a museum’s audience, while too many low-cost options may not attract higher-level donors. Museums struggling to produce meaningful benefits should look into reciprocal programs, such as the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, that allow members to enjoy the benefits of museum membership beyond the walls of their host institution.

With the purchase of an admission ticket, Museum of Us visitors may seek complimentary membership for one year.

Many museums are experimenting with new models that may shape how we perceive museum memberships in the future. Some museums, like San Diego’s Museum of Us, have embraced a free membership program aimed at increasing accessibility and audience retention. Other museums, like the San Antonio Zoo, have launched monthly membership options. Similar to a Netflix subscription, these levels seek to increase giving by providing a more digestible alternative to annual membership fees.

Whether following a traditional model or offering more updated alternatives, museums offering memberships must continue to evaluate the efficacy and accessibility of their programs. Luckily, there are many professional development resources designed to inform museum staff of the latest strategies and theories in membership cultivation and retention. Those interested in learning more should visit the online resources provided by the American Museum Membership Conference and the American Alliance of Museums.

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Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

My Home is a Museum: Balance

Layla Gabulova

Baku, Azerbaijan

For me one form of balance, is depicted on the Strength card which is the highest arcana of the tarot deck. It shows a woman who is taming a lion with her bare hands. The image stands for the balance of strength, wisdom and kindness. One needs to have inner strength to avoid break downs in sight of challenges. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain a healthy balance of forces, otherwise one will turn into a victim or a tyrant.

The characters and their actions also serve as symbolical representation of balance. The lion stands for human passions and fears, while the woman symbolizes awareness and the higher self. If the woman treats the animal with cruelty, the latter can cause unpredictable destructions. Thus, taming the lion needs strength and understanding, power of will and goodness. The infinity sign above the woman’s head, informs of her connection to supernatural. There needs to be a harmony of consciousness and subconscious.

 

Prashant Mishra

Pune, Maharashtra, India

“Mirror on the wall, here we are again through my rise and fall you’ve been my only friend”
When Li’ll Wayne says that in a song, I am reminded of this piece of balance hanging on my wall. Every day I wake up and right before I walk out into the world, it makes me stop and look for a second, doing away with any doubts about myself, assuring to walk out with confidence.

Then once you are through our day, it is the same you reflected in the mirror there. Knowing this brings me back to myself, overlooking the scars on the surface and bringing the focus back to myself. After all, when I look back at the reflection, I hear Wayne’s voice.


“I see the truth in your lies
I see nobody by your side
But I’m with you when you’re all alone
And you correct me when I’m looking wrong”

What’s With All the Gay Penguins?

Ronnie and Reggie, two Humboldt penguins at ZSL London Zoo.

Over and over again, zoos and aquariums around the world are making headlines for their same-sex penguin couplings. One of the most iconic couples was Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who began performing mating rituals at the Central Park Zoo in 1998. After successfully incubating a rock and then a dummy egg, zookeepers decided to give the loving couple a real, fertilized egg. Roy and Silo hatched a baby, a female penguin named Tango. Tango then grew up to form a partnership with another female penguin named Tanuzi.

Skipper and Ping, two king penguins at Zoo Berlin.

The list of gay penguin couples goes on and on and spans a wide range of species. Harry and Pepper were a pair of Magellenic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo. Sphen and Magic are a pair of male Gentoo penguins at SEA LIFE Aquarium in Sydney who hatched their first chick in 2018. Electra and Viola, also Gentoo penguins, are raising a chick at the L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain. At Zoo Berlin, two King penguins named Skipper and Ping have been trying to become fathers, unfortunately with no luck. Ronnie and Reggie are a pair of Humboldt penguins in London. In the Netherlands, a gay African penguin couple recently stole an egg from a lesbian penguin couple. The list goes on. Even in Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope hosts a wedding for two male penguins at the Pawnee Zoo.

The lives of male and female penguins are not as different from each other as we may expect. Regardless of sex, a parent’s responsibilities are similar—both invest equally in raising their chick. Aside from reproductive barriers, there is no reason why same-sex penguin couples cannot be successful parents. Penguins often lay more than one egg, though only one is likely to survive. In captivity, a same-sex penguin couple can adopt any extra eggs (though sometimes they steal eggs instead.) It’s likely that this happens in the wild too—though it’s harder to say. Visibly, male and female penguins really only differ in size, and not by much. That means it’s difficult to tell male and female penguins apart and even more difficult to identify any wild mating pairs as homosexual.

Rocky and Marama at SEA LIFE London.

In late 2019, mothers Rocky and Marama hatched a baby Gentoo penguin at SEA LIFE Aquarium in London. This baby Gentoo made further waves after the aquarium announced that it would not be assigning the chick a gender. The chick is identified with a gender-neutral purple tag rather than the usual gendered name and color coded tag. Beyond that, the penguin’s life will be the same as any other penguin at the Aquarium. Gender means nothing to penguins, so why have we continuously assigned it to them? The General Manager of the aquarium, Graham McGrath comments that the decision to raise a genderless penguin is following an increase in conversations around human gender neutrality. I applaud SEA LIFE London for taking a look at their practices and making changes based on a more nuanced understanding of gender.

The genderless penguin at SEA LIFE London, identified with a purple tag.

Besides, the animal kingdom is constantly subverting our expectations for both gender and sex. Male seahorses famously carry the young while they develop, and are the ones who eventually give birth. Bluehead wrasses all hatch as female. As they mature, some develop into males. These stories should be highlighted more. Most zoos and aquariums stick pretty exclusively to scripts around environmentalism and conservation. While those are incredibly important topics, I would like to see these institutions branch out. For example, a common argument against LGBTQIA+ rights is that “it’s not natural.” Zoos and aquariums have an opportunity to step in and say “actually, that’s not true.”

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