How to Start a Museum

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For your museum to succeed, you must build public support. A good first step is to make your city or community feel the project is theirs -- not just yours. Hold community meetings and find out what exhibits the public wants. Talk to local schools on what the museum should offer students, and meet with tourism and business groups. Local enthusiasm can help draw volunteers and donors to your door.

The Museum Board

Your board directors are essential to your success. The Ameican Alliance of Museums recommends recruitment of members who reflect the makeup of your community -- parents, philanthropists, business leaders and politicians, for example. Not only do good board members steer policy, but they also donate money and time and build added support in their social and professional networks.

Securing Funding

Most museums are nonprofit organizations, the U.S. State Department says. Nonprofit status isn't mandatory, but it can allow your donors to write off contributions on their taxes. Private donations are the primary sources of museum funding in the United States. Drumming donations up is part of the board's job. A big fundraiser -- like a gala dinner or a golf tournament -- can also help raise cash for your initial costs, such as those associated with buying exhibits and renting space.

Government Help

Government contributions, the State Department says, make up 24 percent of the average museum budget. Most of that funding comes from state and local governments, not federal sources. Ask your elected officials about what funding is available. Strong community support for your museum may make government leaders more enthusiastic about helping you.

Grants

Grant money can come from governments or private organizations. Some grants are tightly focused: the Costume Society of America issues grants for costume and textile collections. The federal Institute for Museum and Library Sciences offers more general grants -- supporting educational work with the community, for example. Recruiting a staffer who knows how to find grants and write grant applications -- a specialized skill -- should be a top priority.

Find Staff

Besides a grant writer, your museum needs staff to oversee different areas: exhibits, marketing, fundraising, day-to-day operations and finance. Depending on your finances, your initial staff may have to wear multiple hats. The Association of Children's Museums says a director with good interpersonal and management skills may be a better choice for a start-up than someone with specialized museum experience. You may also have to rely on consultants or volunteers for some jobs.

Obtaining Exhibits

The source of exhibits depends in part on your museum's focus. If it's a city history museum, local residents may be good sources of old photos and memorabilia. For other types of exhibits, the ACM says, you can try renting or buying them from other museums, ask for donations, or hire exhibit firms and designers to set them up.

Building Support

To test whether your concept has any appeal, the Museum Planner website recommends you give donors and visitors a glimpse of your museum before you open it. You can create a simulation online and use it to offer a virtual tour of your museum. If that goes over well, take the next step and open a small-scale preview museum, containing a few of your most appealing exhibits. If it doesn't generate enthusiasm, you may have to go back to the drawing board.

Finding a Location

Museum Planner recommends you calculate the square footage you need for your exhibits and double it to cover administrative areas, maintenance and other needs. Finding a location is where your board's networking skills can really come in handy. Developers, local officials or owners of empty buildings may be willing to help you find an affordable space to lease. Down the road, when you have more money, you may be able to buy or build your own property.

Staying Legal

The American Alliance of Museums recommends you research the provenance -- ownership history -- of any art or antiquities you acquire to avoid exhibiting anything that was acquired illegally. Starting a museum takes paperwork. To qualify for tax-exempt donations, you must apply for IRS approval. If you want to incorporate, you must file with your state government.

References

Resources

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

Photo Credits

  • Michele Piacquadio/Hemera/Getty Images