Museums Struggle to Stand the Test of Time

Grappling with strict budgets, governments redefine how local museums operate.
by , | December 10, 2010

At a time when governments are slashing jobs and shrinking police departments and, in some cases, outsourcing their services altogether, museums, it would seem, don’t stand a chance.

The brutal recession has upended local budgets across the country, forcing officials to make drastic spending decisions for the sake of stability. In some cases, those decisions put museums at risk. In North Carolina, for example, preliminary budget-cutting ideas would eradicate state funding to the Cape Fear Museum, the Children's Museum of Wilmington, the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach and two dozen other museums across the state, the Star News reports.

According to the recent article, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources identified $3.4 million in funding for the so-called “grassroots science museums,” and the proposed cut would help offset a projected $3.5 billion hole in the 2011 state budget.

A similar scene is playing out in California, where a number of cities have surrendered museums to nonprofit organizations to relieve operating cost burdens. The Oakland Museum of California recently decided to sever ties from the city and let the Oakland Museum of California Foundation take over operations, according to the New York Times.

In 2009, the Times noted, Northern California natural history museums in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove had been run by local governments, but turned over operations to private foundations in order to stay open. Other hybrid public-private institutions are facing similar dilemmas. And the issue is even more complex in cases, such as the Oakland museum, where the city owns the land under the museum, the building and the collection inside. But in California -- where the Arts Council budget was cut to $5.4 million from about $32 million in the early 2000s – local museums must change or die.

Despite the economic downturn’s impact on the arts, Orange County, Calif., recently reported some good news. According to a survey by Chapman University, the county’s 26 largest non-profit arts organizations contributed $483.8 million directly and indirectly to the economy last year, outperforming the economy as a whole. Also, total revenue from earned income grew from $117.6 million in 2005 to $140.4 million last year. However, the road ahead looks rocky: Expenses are expected to go up as contributions decline.

But the overall situation, as bleak as it looks, should be a catalyst for innovation for struggling museums across the country. Museums should use existing funds from organizations to expand the educational trend to use technology in interactive exhibits and virtual displays that engage communities. “Museums are looking to redefine themselves; they can’t just be temples of fine art,” Adrienne Horn, president of a San Francisco museum consulting company, told the Times. “That’s not working. People want more, want more interactivity. The style of museums has changed.”

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