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Museum Online Presence: Critical to Income Stream

Posted by Rachael Cristine Woody on 3/12/2019
Rachael Cristine Woody
Museum Online Presence

Museum online presence is not a new area of museum work, and yet it is widely considered a fledgling or niche area. The physical aspects of a museum traditionally receive more staff attention and a larger amount of the operating budget than its online counterpart.

Perhaps this is because the museum objects themselves are thought more exciting to view in person, and therefore the physical experience at the museum is the more important visit type. This belief, as true as it may be, has some long-term implications for the future viability of museums—and can be especially alarming when we consider the statistical and anecdotal evidence of overall museum onsite visits trending down.

Museum Funding Streams

A museum’s survival cannot be solely predicated on the number of physical visitors it receives. A healthy museum (as with any organization) must have diverse income streams that originate from separate and independent sectors. For example, a museum may have the following: visitor admissions and member passes, grant and foundation funding, stocks and investments, donors and endowments, and municipal and business sponsorships.

Why Is Money Given?

Each of the above-mentioned income streams can’t and should not be taken for granted. Any number of things can, have, and will happen to impact each stream. And when income streams are impacted it can cripple and even close museums. By exploring why money is given to a museum we can begin to identify new ways of how to harness the “why” of giving and provide for it in a digital way, through an online presence.

What Each Income Stream Wants from a Museum’s Online Presence

With the exception of stocks and investments, the remaining four income streams have expectations of a museum’s online presence.

Visitorship & Member Passes

What’s the first thing you do when you’re preparing to travel to a new place? You Google it, read reviews, and view the website for information you need to facilitate a visit. The information and experience provided via the museum’s website will absolutely have an effect on whether a person chooses to visit the museum. Now, let’s say the person makes a visit. What’s to keep them coming back? New content, special events, special member access, and a dynamic communication plan via the website and social media channels are all needed in order to inspire repeat visits and membership loyalty. This is a substantial amount of pressure to place on the museums online presence, especially if the museum doesn’t have adequate resources to meet digital visitor expectations.

Grant & Foundation Funding

Based on the 10+ years I’ve spent in grant acquisition strategy I can tell you two things usually make for a competitive and attractive proposal:

  1. Collaboration, and
  2. Increased and innovative online collections

Put them together and you get a super-awesome, super-competitive proposal: a joint online catalog with peer institutions who share complimentary collections. If your museum hasn’t engaged in this area of collaborative and innovative ways to share collections online, then it should. This is where the future of online museum content is headed.

Donors & Endowments

Why do donors give money? Donors give money to an organization because they believe in what the organization is doing. That the work is meaningful. Donors give money to museums because at some point the museum provided the donor with a meaningful experience they haven’t received elsewhere. The money donors give and the endowments they create are an investment in the future of the museum and in future museum visitors. Donors want museums to continue to meet and surpass visitors’ evolving expectations. Expectations that include the way a museum manages its online presence.

Municipal & Business Sponsorship

Museums often help cities fill the gap in social services available to under-served and under-supported populations. Local governments and businesses generally acknowledge that museums and cultural institutions help contribute to a healthy and vibrant community ecosystem. As such, it’s in the government’s and businesses’ best interest that museums continue to provide services to the community. Those include online services. If a museum can work towards offering robust services both in-person and online it will help ensure future municipal and business sponsorship.

Conclusion: Why Invest in your Museum Online Presence?

Healthy museums acquire their income from a variety of independent income streams. It’s important that staff take the time to critically evaluate each funding stream and identify how the museum can continue to meet expectations, including via an online presence, and maintain the museum’s eligibility for future funding.


Rachael Cristine Woody has advised on museum collections management and funding for institutions like the Freer|Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College. See Rachael’s posts for Lucidea specifically on funding. Lucidea’s Argus solutions enable large and small museums to make collections more visible and accessible, thus improving museum online presence.

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Topics: Digital Museums, Museums, Visitor Engagement, Funding