Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Breakfast in Philadelphia

The first official day of Interactivity began with roundtable breakfasts organized by museum field -- exhibits, finance, visitor services, etc. I took the elevator to the top floor for the leadership breakfast, and enjoyed the view of the Philadelphia skyline and the new Please Touch museum in the distance.

First, Neil Gordon, the current ACM board president and the ED at the Children's Museum of Boston, MA, took care of some business, welcoming new board members and thanking others who were completing their terms of service. There was a nice moment when Richard Battle of the Strong Museum, Rochester NY (who is retiring not just from the ACM board but from his museum as well) promised to have us all over on his boat in Florida. Also, I'm happy to say that ACM must have read my evaluations from previous years (thanks guys) and they kept the program short so we could network among ourselves.

Conversation at my table was vigorous as most people reported the following trend: attendance up, fundraising down. To my left, the director of the San Jose Children's Museum and a founding member of the recently opened museum in Fond du Lac, WI encouraged a woman named Tamar who has come all the way from Israel to learn about how to get a museum going in her town. To my right, the directors of Imagine It, Atlanta GA, Port Discovery, Baltimore, MD, and AHA, Lancaster, OH chatted about their museums. Imagine It has had great success with their "Target" free days at their museum in Atlanta, which open for free on the second Tuesday from 1 to 7 pm (sponsored by the department store). In addition to the the financial support, the director gushed about what terrific partners the people at Target were in volunteering and doing promotions to make the monthly event a huge success. Several of us were scribbling notes at that point. Part of our conversation revolved around one of my favorite questions - who really comes to children's museums, as Port Discovery has made the journey from their initial focus on an older, school-age visitors, to retrofitting their museum experience to the more frequent toddler and preschool visitor. I'll note that our host, Please Touch, was a pioneer in staking out the "early years" territory, since they have always been targeted from birth to age 7.

I was surprised at one question that came up in this group of museum veterans -- they were speculating about whether offering membership is a plus or minus for the bottom line of their museums. We agreed that becoming members at a children's museum isn't quite like when someone becomes a "member" of the ballet or the symphony (which they presumably do for the cachet and as a step to becoming donors), since children's museum members are likely motivated more by the discounted admission than the perception of supporting the institution. But there just wasn't time to explore why Membership as a concept would even be considered for the chopping block as a way to reduce costs -- I'd love to know what data each museum is compiling on that equation. This is one of those issues that is highly affected by hyper local market conditions -- in a previous year, I remember the director of a fellow New England children's museum saying "our members are killing us", meaning that they come all the time, but they only pay once a year. I felt like offering her a tissue!

I would have liked to hear more about how different museums make membership work -- at Kidcity we've seen some changes in use over the years, going from member visits in the 20% range of our overall attendance to close to 40% now -- but the balance is overwhelmingly in our favor in many ways, as members who visit freqeuently help define the play culture at "Kidcity". It's nice to have a balance between families who know the ropes and people who are just discovering our museum for the first time. I think everyone understand that there is an intangible benefit to offering membership -- but I'd love to hear other perspectives. Hopefully there will be more time to chat with other directors on this and other topics as the conference rolls on.

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