10 Steps to Starting a Museum

Mark WalhimerMuseum Planning, Starting A Museum 46 Comments

Starting a museum or “How to start a museum in 10 steps”.   Since 1992, I have been part of opening and expanding more than thirty-five museums.   Most of my work has been with science centers, children’s museums and natural history museums.   Below is my list of the ten steps to starting a new museum or “How to start a museum”:

UPDATE: I wrote this post in 2011 and it is all still true and helpful today. However, if you are wanting a more in-depth treatment of how to start a museum, I just released a new book, Museums 101, which I designed to be an A-to-Z resource for those looking to start a museum. If you are truly looking to start a museum, my book was written for you. You can buy it on Amazon.com.

  1. One Page Description.  Write a one page description of the museum.  You can use my museum questionnaire as a starting point for your new museum description. What type of museum are you creating? science center?, Art museum? local history?  Then, purchase two books, “Please Understand Me” and “Built to Last” .  I am consistently surprised how the personality of the founder of a museum comes through in the opened museum.  It makes sense, the founder, builds a Board of Directors, the Board of Directors hires an Executive Director and the Executive Director hires staff.  We all tend to gravitate to people similar to us, so the personality of the founder is often similar to the staff of the museum 10 years latter.  Roy Shafer led a workshop I attended, where we were each given a personality test, before handing out the results of the test, he asked us to look to our left and to our right and notice the people sitting next to us.  We then opened the personality test and the entire room had organized ourselves according to our personality type.  Be very honest, “is your personality the personality you want reflected in the opened museum?”  If not, find Board Members to your weakness.
  2. Community Meeting.  The second step of starting a museum, organize a community meeting, invite politicians, “want to be politicians”, parents, teachers, school superintendents and real estate developers and ask “what type of museum do you want?”.  DO NOT show drawings of the proposed museum, DO NOT describe the museum you are planning.  Listen.  Collect the names and email addresses of the participants and ask if they would be willing to attend future meetings.   Do not fall into the trap of “if I build it they will come”, find out what the community wants.
  3. 20 Museums. As part of starting a museum, visit twenty museums of the type you are interested in opening.  Keep notes and take lots of pictures.  What is their yearly attendance?  What is their ticket price?  Find out their operating costs, the National Center for Charitable Statistics is a wonderful resource. Notice the smallest details, what does the floor staff wear? Ask to do a “back of house tour”, Do they have a museum store?  What type of ticketing system do they use?  Write a thank you note to any staff you meet during your visit.  Join a museum organization and get involved.  Go back to your community and show them the findings of your museum visits.
  4. Real Estate Developers are your friends.  Make an effort to meet the real estate developers in your community.  Every project of starting a museum, I have ever worked on has in some way been motivated by real estate.  Make friends with real estate developers, tell them of your museum idea.  You will be surprised how your plans will resonate with real estate developers.  You are supplying a community resource.  Do NOT make any agreements with real etstate developers until after you have raised more than half of your capital.
  5. Do the numbers.  Starting a museum is very expensive, as a rule of thumb, the exhibition space is half of the overall space, a 4500 exhibition space becomes a 9000 square ft building at $200 per square foot of new construction is $1.8 million dollars, plus approximately, $150 to fit out the gallery spaces, $675,000, total $2,475,000 in start up costs plus operating costs.  If you use an average of $40 per square ft for operating costs your yearly operating costs would be $360,000 (salaries, utilities, maintenance), not including an endowment.  Create a business plan, can you earn at least 50% of your yearly expenses?  Be conservative with your annual attendance figures.  Too many museums have gotten into trouble using optimistic attendance figures.  Attendance in the second and third year of a new museum can fall off 20%-30% (or more).  Plan to the third year of operation, too many museums only plan to the opening of the museum.  Plan to your third year, not to opening.
  6. Own the words.  Research all of the words that describe your planned museum, the more specific you can be, the better.  Use Google Analytics and purchase domains related to the words that describe the museum.  Create a name for the organization, be very specific; San Francisco Maritime Museum, Techniquest, San Mateo County History Museum.
  7. Non-Profit.  Up to this point there is no need to form an non-profit, it is an advantage to wait.  Get people involved, build a community around the museum need, then form the non profit.  The best museums are those that grow out of a community need.  Organize your Board of Directors.  Your Board should include, politicians, business people, investment experts, real estate developers, experts in the field of the museum, teachers, school superintendents and potential donors.  A larger Board of Directors (20-25 people) is fine while you are raising funds.  Form a 501(c)(3) .
  8. Pre-View Facility.  As part of starting a museum, create a preview facility, a smaller version of your yet to be opened museum.  The preview facility may be very small and only temporary.  The preview facility is great for talking with potential donors, now you can walk donors through a small version of the final museum.  Speak to architects and exhibition designers.  Tell them of your plans, select an architect and an exhibition designer, tell them “we have limited resources at this point, but if you help us with the preview facility (pay them a reduced fee) you will have the contract for the museum”.
  9. Raise Money. Use the Board of Directors.  A favorite story of mine is an Executive Director needed $500,000 for a new exhibition, he called a meeting and said to the Board of Directors “I need $500,000, each of you either needs to contribute $25,000 or find someone who will contribute $25,000.”  at the end of the meeting a Board member wrote a check for the full $500,000.  For more information read my article “Museum Fundraising”
  10. Share the Vision.  The best fund raising tools I know of starting a museum:; a preview facility, an icon (The Discovery Science Center Cube, The world’s largest  Brachiosaurus at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis), and a museum preview booklet (including architectural illustrations and exhibition illustrations).  As you start the design process walk potential donors through the preview facility (with museum preview booklet in hand) and discuss with them potential icons of the facility, your exhibition plans and involve the donors with the building architecture and exhibition design.  Try not to make any promises for naming opportunities until you are confident that you will reach your capital campaign goals.

Comments 46

  1. Your 10 step planning has been very helpful. I am working with an historical society that wants to open a museum but, that is all they know, is that they want to open. Your 10 steps has helped me to organize them and create a timeline! Thank you.

  2. Mark, Thankyou so much for posting this information. u00a0 In Jan 2010, an authentic Chinese Junk found it’s way into my life, here in Monterey Bay, CA.u00a0 Since then a descendant from 1851 Chinese visited me in full Chinese Robes on the boat.u00a0 I could see she was visibly moved by being on the junk and imagining what it was like for her family to travel from China to Pacific Grove in a boat like mine.u00a0 Then, I heard a whisper in my ear: Chinese Junk Museum.u00a0 The Chinese built the commercial fishing biz here in the beginning and most of the culture and history was lost when the village was burned to the ground by arsonists.u00a0 My goal is to have 3 junks total of differing sizes, and share exhibits with the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.u00a0 With your info, I have a needed blueprint on how to proceed and of course need funds and volunteers to get started.u00a0 I hope to get to a place where I will need your services. SusanEbradley@gmail.com

  3. Hi Mark, I’m in the early EARLY stages of planning an interactive museum and I’m very glad to have found these guidelines. Like other commenters, I look forward to communicating and hopefully working with you in the future.

  4. Hi Mark,
    Thank you for the great information. I am a graduate student of Museum and heritage studies, my colleagues and I are hoping to start up a museum in April. The 10 steps will be helpful when planning to start up a museum. I am hoping to work with you in case of any inquiries. Zainanab@hotmail.com

  5. If we are The African American Music Hall Of Fame do we still want to be called a museum even if we are showcasing history of African American Music

  6. Thanks for this article: extremely helpful.  I am not a museum expert, but want to initiate development of a regional museum in Lake Havasu City, AZ. Your article saved me considerable effort that would have gone into ‘trial& error’, and dead ends. Most appreciated!

  7. hi mark.am an engineering student. i,m currently doing an architectural plan for an art museum, but i got into trouble of deciding and organizing its divisions, parts etc. can you help me? thank you in advance

  8. Mark, thanks for this 10-step planning guide. It was both informative and a wake-up call. In your article you reference a questionnaire. I cannot locate it. Can you please post-it somewhere on your page?

  9. This was amazing. I am looking at starting a children’s museum in my small town and I didn’t know where to start…but now I do. Thank you so much. I will definitely be referring back to you.

  10. hello mark

    thanks for the helpful information.

    where can i get the museum questionnaire you refer to in point num.1?

  11. Your list is quite helpful for direction the organization should consider taking in reference of opening a museum. I’ll meet with them on July 20th and let you know how it goes… thanks a lot, Brunilda Milan

  12. Thanks for this very insightful information!! Just want to know whether we could get access to the two books you are talking about and the museum questionnaire.

  13. I know of gentlemen who built a children’s museum in memory of his late wife who adores children. As a jeweler, he had no idea what kind of responsible or dedication it entailed. Now he is looking to sell it to someone who is more capable of running a children’s museum. I’ve been there with my two boys and it was one of their best experiences at a museum. This museum is located in New Jersey. If you are interested, please contact me at patsytiu@gmail.com.

  14. How do I go about getting funds for a 5-Part building museum, that incorporates alternative energy for working facilities with out the risk of being biased to the public view with the back up of huge investors believed for being “bad” for the environment?

    Also, is it possible to create a Billion dollar museum for the size I dream it to be, with the technology that money can buy and still become successful?


  15. It is very educative to an entrant who wants to build a Museum.
    Now I am in the process of establishing a museum at Palimaru Mata, Udupi, Karnataka, India

  16. A very interesting read and I think I understand how you go from an idea to a mom & pop size museum but what if your idea only really works as a large scale museum? Is it possible without huge resources? or even moderate resources? I was considering starting a wiki page explaining the concept and trying to encourage others to enter virtual exhibits. If this did take off then my hope was I could use this to ask for government or industry funding.

    PS Mark, you may need to update your links for “Please understand me” and “Built to last” as they lead to blank pages (at least for me here in the UK).

  17. Hello, Mark , I got your book last december, its great and has helped me a great deal. Now I just found this site, what a blessing. Thanks, us new ones need all the help we can get. Thank you!

    The Veteran Woman Museum.org (The first women’s military museum from WW1-Afghanistan)

  18. Your ten steps is very informative, I will utilize them when we get our new Apache Cultural Museum in the planning stages here on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Any advise on the first steps would be helpful. Also your questionnaire isn’t accessible.

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  20. Hi Mark. Thank you for the very helpful 10 steps. I understand your advice to not file non-profit status right away. My question: does this rule still apply to for-profit museums? Also, have you been involved in the formation of for-profit museums? How different/similar is the process?

  21. Hi Mark,

    Your article is very helpful in laying out the ground work necessary to starting a museum. I have hopes of opening a Children’s Museum in Leesburg, VA or surrounding areas. We had a Children’s Museum in DC at one point, it closed and reopened in National Harbor, MD (right outside of DC). The museum was only open for 3 years before closing again. What do you think of opening a Children’s Museum in Leesburg?

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    Hi Erika,
    Thank you for the message.

    Always a wonderful idea to create creative spaces for kids ! Would need to know more about the project to say if it is financially feasible. Send me an email if I can be of further assistance.
    All the best,

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    Hi Pam,
    Yes, have been involved in the formation of “for-profit” museums. For-profit museum is a bit of a misnomer, ICOM museum definition;
    “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

    With that said, yes for-profit museums exist. The process of development is similar but the motivations are different, most for-profit museums are part of a larger corporation to memorialize the history of a company. I can only think of a couple of “stand alone” for-profit museums that have been successful.

    – Mark

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  25. Dear Mr. Mark,
    I really thank you for sharing some of your knowledge. And I would love to get more advices and more suggestions according to my new career because I’m about runing an archaeological museum.
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

    Best ,

  26. Hey Mark,
    I am glad I stumbled upon your website. I and a partner of what to start the first Children’s museum in Africa. I would probably need a lot of help but I will read through the available information first. Thanks for this wonderful resource

  27. Mark hi – great resource and thanks for posting. When starting an art museum, is it a strict rule to always construct or purchase the space? Or when starting out can long term renting be an option?

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    Hi Jeni,
    Thank you for the kind words! Do you have an art collection? As long as a rental space is secure and has museum conditions renting is fine. Many museums exist in rented spaces. Often museums are working with a city and the city offers the museum a low-cost rental.

    Best, Mark

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  30. Great to come across this development. We have an obligation to establish one Museum in our Kingdom during our generation. We shall be most helped with this information.

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    Dear Chrispine,
    Glad that you found the information helpful !

    All the best,
    – Mark

  32. Dearest Mark, hello from South Africa. I have decided to open a MUSEUM of MEASUREMENT in Johannesburg, SA. I realise our social and operating conditions are very different but would appreciate calling on your knowlege in general for assistance. This preliminary mail is really to enquire whether you see a possibility of doing so from USA.

    Best regards
    Colin Lee

  33. In the article you used the figure $200 sq/ft as the estimate for building cost. Is this just an example, or would you say this is a reasonable average for a development of this type? If it helps, I’m located in New Orleans, LA. I know costs vary throughout the country, though, so if you can provide even a national average it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for any help you’re able to provide!

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    Hi Mike,
    The $200 per square foot for building costs is a good general number for a quick estimate. Of course building construction costs can be lower (existing building in need of minor renovation) to new or renovated building to a high standard of interior design.

    – Mark

  35. Hello Mark, Great resource. I sent you an email and I hope to hear from you.

  36. Hi Mark Imagine my delight in finding a comprehensive answer to a question I’ve been mulling over for some time now… Thank you so much for sharing your practical planning wisdom in this genre. Jessica M.

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