Start-up museums: The exhibition teams


(Shout/For The Washington Post)
March 28

The Washington area rivals Silicon Valley in ideas for a particular kind of start-up — the museum start-up. It’s the dream of folks with a notion they can’t shake, that they’re sure will catch fire and attract legions of visitors.

They want to add to the existing mix of Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, and the Spy Museum. Right now there are efforts underway to build: a Bible Museum, a National LGBT Museum, a National Museum of the American People, an Armenian Genocide Museum of America. There are new, futuristic efforts, like the Museum of Science Fiction, and ones that are decades old, like the National Women’s History Museum, the idea for which took root in the mid-’90s, when female lawmakers tried to get a statue of suffragettes moved from the Capitol basement to the Rotunda. There’s the National Museum of the American Latino, the Irish American Museum of Washington, D.C., and others, in various stages of planning and execution.

What does it take to turn an idea for a museum into bricks-and-mortar reality? What’s the alchemy that allows some start-up museums to break ground, while others never reach escape velocity?

Experts say it’s a mix of vision and skill: a business plan not only for how to build the museum, but also how to operate it year after year. It helps to have a city that’s already a tourist attraction, with a strong philanthropic and cultural community.

But first ask: “Who cares?” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “Because when you can answer that question, that gives you your equation for support.” That support must be relative to the project scope. “For a one-room neighborhood museum, it’s enough that everybody in that neighborhood cares. If you’re trying to build the National Museum of Something, you better show national grass-roots support,” Merritt says.


For the past three decades, Barry Lord and his wife, Gail, who head the Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources, have helped museums worldwide get started, plan expansions and organize exhibitions. They worked on the strategic plan for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest Smithsonian museum, which broke ground in 2012 and plans to open late in 2015, after a decades-long effort.

Some museums are collection-based, others, including a number trying to locate in Washington, are what Barry Lord calls “idea museums.” Both must begin with institutional planning, “which is to say what kind of animal is this? Is it going to be a government institution, or is it going to be the opposite extreme, private, not-for-profit, which may get some government support, but will be earning its own keep.” Museum operating costs are 10 to 15 percent of the capital costs, he says, so the business plan has show where that money will come from.

Museums often become community icons, Gail Lord says. “It has to be relevant to people and have the nuts and bolts: great galleries, good space, good architecture, and it has to have amenities.” The latest trend: to include specialized conference facilities inside a museum to capi­tal­ize on the perception of museums as places to convene people, solve problems and create ideas.

Former engineer Malcolm O’Hagan is chairman of the foundation behind the American Writers Museum, widely viewed as a successful start-up. The Ireland native patterned the idea off a writers museum in Dublin. In 2009, he showed up in the lobby of the National Endowment for the Arts and asked to speak with the head of literature, who, he says, was sold on the idea after 15 minutes. David Kipen confirms he was enchanted and a month later took O’Hagan to New York and introduced him to some of his literary friends.

O’Hagan tested the concept with respected museums and literary figures. He assembled a Washington team, including a law firm that gave him pro bono legal, office and administrative support. He found a public-relations specialist to help with branding, and they incorporated to raise money in accordance with IRS regulations. He was warned “not to hire a curator upfront, because you will get that person’s POV and biases reflected in the design and the concept,” O’Hagan says. “What we really have done is assemble curatorial teams from the literary community and universities.”

While the museum will have a few iconic items, like the writing desk of poet Anne Sexton, it will not be based on a collection, which is expensive to acquire, house and maintain. Instead, it will borrow from major universities and the Library of Congress. “We want to keep rotating interesting collections and artifacts from other institutions,” O’Hagan says. “The manuscript from Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ or a typewriter belonging to Steinbeck or Fitzgerald.”

O’Hagan wanted the museum to be in Boston, but the team chose Chicago for its central location, strong tourism base and famed literary tradition that includes Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg and Studs Terkel. The museum isn’t seeking government funding. “Maybe free rent in a city facility, but in terms of financial support, we don’t expect that.” He cites the struggle to create a National Women’s History Museum on or near the Mall as an example of a how difficult that path can be; organizers are still trying to get a feasibility study authorized by Congress.

O’Hagan hopes to open the Writers Museum in a temporary downtown location in 2016, and museum experts says he has the right mix to make it happen.

Museum-building is about execution, O’Hagan says. “You can come up with a million ideas, but to make it a reality is where the challenge is, and all the work.”

CHART: Which museums show real promise?

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