Museum Community and Institutional Values

Mark Walhimer Exhibition Costs, Future of Museums, Museum Business Planning, Museum Feasibility Study, Museum Planning Leave a Comment

Museum Community and Institutional Values
Museum Community Values and Museum Institutional Values

Museum institutional values need to align with museum community values, or there is a chance for loss of community involvement.


Recently I received an inquiry about a Feasibility Study and Business Plan for a new civil rights museum. The potential client wanted to know the costs of creating the study. As I was working with the potential client to understand the scope of work for the project, I realized that there had been a significant shift in museum costs as they pertain to museum institutional values.

What do I mean by “museumcosts as they pertain to museum institutional values”? This potential project is a civil rights museum in a large urban area with a high cost of living. For example, If we prepare aFeasibility Study / Business Plan based on paying floor staff $7.25 an hour, the project will be criticized and unsuccessful. Instead, the project needs to pay museum floor staff a living wage with benefits for the project to be constant with the museum’s institutional values.

Costs and Instiutional Values

The more I thought about it, the more complex the “calculation” became. This potential project of aFeasibility Study / Business Plan for a civil rights museum could not open for a least three years or a potential 2024 opening. TheFeasibility Study / Business Plan will require thinking ahead to the United States and museums of at least 2024.

My prediction is we will see a contraction of the typical 9-5 commuter office worker and the rise of the work from home freelancer. The United States will continue to be a country galvanized and divided in our ideologies and beliefs. For example, red states (Republican) and the blue states (Democrat), and the vaccinated and vaccine-resistant states are divided.

We now select friends, where to live, and companies that agree with our personal values. Dependent on the location of the civil rights museum, if paying floor staff below the cost of a living wage, their institutional values may not be are constant with their institutional actions and cause of discontinuity and reason for audiences not to participate.


The cost / institutional values equation becomes more complex, dependent on location. The values and beliefs of what it means to be “American” are very different from state to state, and these differences play out in the operational costs of a museum. It would be tough to have a non-union construction (often at a higher cost) contract in an urban center than a non-union construction (often at a lower cost) in a rural area. When in the past an argument was often made to use non-union contractors in urban areas, it would be difficult for civil rights museums to make the same argument today and be consistent with their institutional values and to be constant with their communities’ values.

So in the process of creating aFeasibility Study / Business Plan for a civil rights museum potentially to open in 2024, we need to understand the community values and how the institutional values will align with community values.

New Museum Business Models

To further complicate the cost / institutional values equation. In the past, we could estimate costs on a low-cost basis and then build business models to have operational costs and unearned income create a business plan. The equations are no longer so simple. Basing costs on non-union labor and minimum wage without benefits could be rejected by communities as not aligning with their values. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter has made museums more aware of the need for Museum Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI);

  • Is the museum staff representative of the local community ?
  • Can the museum staff afford to live and participate in the local community ?
  • Are the values of the staff reprsntative of the local community ?
  • Are the museum goals aspirartional for the local community ?

Before COVID-19, museums were already struggling financially and working to keep their doors open. We do not see a significant increase in museum funding. In the best case, we are hoping to maintain pre-COVID-19 funding, leaving a delta between the increased costs of institutional values and stagnant and or decreasing funding sources.

This is a needed change museum being constant with their institutional values. The question becomes more of a business planning model question, which becomes a question of the role of museums in communities.

Aligning Museum Community and Institutional Values

  1. Audience Research, both online and local in person
  2. Empathy mapping of audiences
  3. Audience segmentation
  4. Define Audience values
  5. Define Museum Institutional Values
  6. Define areas of alignment and lack of alignment


The change of the “equation” of social responsibility balancing with economic sustainability is a good one for museums and has been a long time coming. Although this change of having communities drive museum institutional values will take time and new business models for museums.

(1) The United States “America / American” is part of North America and shares are heritage with forty countries, territories, and dependencies


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