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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Getting your new/rebooted museum firing on all cylinders

Updated: Jul 2

Starting a new museum? Reimagining or rebuilding an existing one? Either way, here are some of the most important considerations to help get you from a great idea to a great place to go:

1. Forge connections. Get your startup museum connected to more established venues that round out your story. They can send people to you if you send people to them. Nonprofits rely on mutual cooperation. Territorially is a killer. 

2. Develop curriculum. In my state, schools don’t go on field trips without justifying those field trips by the Alabama Course of Study. Form a committee of educators who can not only help you develop said curriculum but talk you up to colleagues. It’s easy to do.  

3. Make it navigable. You need interpretive signage that helps visitors understand your message even on self-guided tours. A museum isn’t just a roomful of stuff. It’s an interpreted experience. Do the work of interpretation!

4. Develop collaterals and a web presence. Collaterals — print pieces — help schools and others easily see your value. Different audiences have different concerns, but at the heart of those is this question: will a trip to this venue be worth my while? Understand what “worth my while” looks like for these different segments and pitch accordingly.

5. Build programming. While I was a museum education director, that museum got about a tenth of its annual student visitation thanks to ONE program that unfolded over ONE week. Programming that works is different from place to place and segment to segment. Maybe effective programming ties to a nearby farmer’s market or your downtown’s restaurant or brewpub scene. If you want schools coming on field trips, programming is an efficient way to bring in classrooms during concentrated periods in your calendar.

6. Develop strategic promotions. Don’t just throw money at promoting your site, but you have got to tell your organization’s story so that others can catch your vision. That means PR (talking to press sources about who you are) and it means marketing (social media, ads, mailers, email blasts, and more). Promotion doesn’t have to cost a lot but if you do it right, you will get a return. 

7. Look for funding. In my state, the Alabama Historical Commission, the Alabama Humanities Alliance, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Daniel Foundation, Blue Cross/Blue Shield — all have their respective granting cycles. I’ve personally written grants totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. You need to scaffold these sources, using some as match for larger ones. The money is out there. You gotta know how to find it.

8. Measure everything. Stand at the door with a click counter. A/B test panels in front of focus groups. Look at web analytics. Funders expect to see impact. Show them, not just with storeytelling (though there’s that, too) but hard numbers. Collect data on school visitation, web traffic, program participation — whatever’s relevant. Operate your nonprofit from such a dashboard, just like you would an automobile.

To discuss how Backstory can help you launch your interpretive space, contact Phil Ratliff at 205.234.0336, It's surprisingly easy and may cost less than you think.

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