Building a Museum Brand

Mark Walhimer Future of Museums, Museum Planning, Starting A Museum 13 Comments

Frank Oppenheimer, from the Exploratorium, David Baker

Frank Oppenheimer, from the Exploratorium, David Baker

Brand is the glue that holds together a successful museum, it gives visitors a comfort level and engages audience.  Building a museum brand is often an unintentional output of a founder, sometimes it is a well crafted form of communication.  This series of blog posts will examine how to craft a brand that touches on every aspect of a museum.

I have a friend Mark.  He and I have been friends since the first day of kindergarden forty-five years ago (I will be 50 this year).  I know Mark as well as anyone in the world, I know how he walks, what makes him smile and his interests.  Every time I see Mark, it give me a sense of place, I know who I am, I know how to act and I get a sense of comfort.  When Mark, my wife and I go out for dinner, the dynamic changes and we are now a group and the dynamic has changed.   When Mark, my wife and I go to a dinner party, we have now joined a larger group and there are too many variables for me to know the expected behavior of the group.  This is where brand comes into play, a way to help people with expectations and predict outcomes.

Businesses are the same (yes, museums are a business), a founder hires a staff and most often the founder finds board members and staff that reflect his personality.  Most often the culture of a museum can be traced back to the personality of the founder.  Brand is the output of a culture, both intentional and non-intentional.     I love the quote “You cannot not communicate”.  Even when we do not wish to communicate we are still communicating.

I am working on a book “How to Start a Museum”, and I have been struggling with how to create a framework for the book.  I believe brand is the framework for all museums.  Many will disagree with me.  They will say that museums are based around a collection or a mission statement, I say it is a narrative that engages audience.  Narrative is the story of an exhibition or program, “museum voice” is how the museum communicates brand.

This idea of brand touches every aspect of a museum, including:
Engaging Community
The Content of collections
Museum Programming (Education)
Exhibition Evaluation
Museum Marketing
, (Earned, Owned and Paid)

Back to Mark.  When I get together with Mark, I know how to act, it would be out of character to go to a dance club with Mark.  If we went to a dance club it would be a joke and we would become silly, because it would be out of character for both Mark and I.

I loved the old Exploratorium.  For me, central to the brand was the vision of Frank Oppenheimer of making science accessible.  I loved the rough and tumble approach, the plywood exhibits just rolled out of the exhibition shop.  At the old location, it was dirty and messy, a place of passion for science exploration.  The old Exploratorium allowed me to “own” the content, the content became accessible.

As a next step I will start to describe how to build a new museum around this idea of brand and how existing museums can recraft themselves with a strong brand. Future blog posts will examine each aspect of the museum around the idea of brand.

Small Museums with a strong brand:
Mutter Museum
Museum Jurassic Technology

Medium Size Museums with a strong brand:
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
The American Visionary Art Museum
Museum of the Moving Image

Large Museums with a strong brand:
The Getty
San Diego Zoo
Monterey Bay Aquarium
American Museum of Natural History
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Built to Last
Please Understand Me
Paul Watzlawick
Experience Economy 
Constructivist Learning Theory

Comments 13

  1. Interesting article. I totally agree that a museum needs a kind of corporate design. I especially like the British Museum and the Museum of Natural History in London. I was there two or three times and although I do not live in England, I know their design and recognize it immediately. It stuck.
    I look forward to further articles about this topic!

  2. Dear Artefacts,

    Thank you. For me “brand” goes beyond design, it also includes culture.

    I have been working on a heierarchy:

    – Brand
    – “Museum Voice”
    – Community
    – Hospitality
    – Story
    – Content


  3. Nice project! In my experience, the museums chance to succeed in building and strengthening a brand is directly linked to the shared vision (or lack of it) that the owners (if private) “sister projects” (if its part of a larger private cultural foundation) or regional cultural authorities…are supposed to have and work towards it.
    Human resources are the second key element, they have to understand the museum’s new goals and share it so they all build a momentum to start it all.

  4. Dear Rocio,
    Thank you.

    Great ideas! Often the toughest part of any project is creating a shared vision. I will work on a post about Brand, Community, Shared Vision and Institutional Culture.

    Any “tricks” you would like to share?


  5. Hi All,
    I have added the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to the list of “Museums that have built a brand”.

    Looking for suggestions for other small museums that have built a “brand”, thanks!

  6. Hi Mark,

    I like what you said about “you cannot not communicate”
    Especially in our times where we are bombarded with social media and the need to have a virtual presence everywhere from Facebook to Instagram.
    I’m currently in the midst of setting up a non profit design center in the Middle East, any suggestions on how to brand it?

  7. Have reorganized the list of “Museums with a strong brand” into three groups; small, medium and large. Also added MODO to the list of small museums with a strong brand.

    Any other suggestions for small museums with a strong brand?
    Thank you!

  8. Planning a business is not quiet easy more than that advertising a museum is important. But for advertising we need to give voices. I saw an article about dubbing and i suggest it to you

  9. Strong means internationally ? To which target group ? Check museum of cycladic art . Small well known , but internationally to the archaeology and greek lovers . Let me know your thoughts .

  10. Mark, like you I believe in the creation of a strong brand, that narrative of principle and practice which shapes every aspect of a museum’s personality and behaviour. Where we diverge is that I believe that the brand comes third in the hierarchy of thinking, behind Vision (the better future we are helping to create) and Mission (the specific building block of that better future we will deliver). These are both fundamental rationales for an organisation’s existence, and IMO sit upstream of Brand (who we are, what we believe, etc) and Strategy (how we intend to go about it).

  11. Creating a strong brand for museums is a great idea to promote these awesome places especially in this generation. Have the best luck guys!

  12. How would branding for The Getty Center and The Getty Villa differ? A few of my friends say they are the same, but I disagree. Wouldn’t they be different due to their different collections and architecture, etc. ?

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