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Sue Runyard on how to market the modern museum

A guide to selling the modern museum

According to Sue Runyard, museum people—in Britain at least—no longer need persuading that marketing is important. But for those who still need to know how to do it, how to plan for it and what other people have achieved, her Museum Marketing Handbook provides a useful introduction. It is an easy-to-use guide to the marketing process, not overloaded with jargon and strong on practical advice, ingeniously arranged in alphabetical order. A is for advertising, B is for budgets and so on—with some detailed case studies appended.

The number of full-time marketing officers employed in British museums grew from five in 1988 to approaching forty in 1992. These figures may still seem meagre but the growth took place during a time of recession, when museums were cutting back on their core activities. It was part of a more general trend to re-allocate scarce resources away from “curatorial” to “public” services. Marketing officers with their shiny new skills were often seen as the white knights who would save museums from disaster.

The fact that they conspicuously failed to do so when they were not backed up by a decent product is demonstrated by the collapse of some of the more witless “heritage” enterprises of the Eighties. And the jury is still out on their capacity to delivery in the major museums. Supported by a government whose only role model is that of a plc and trustees who usually run one, some went mad spending vast amounts of money on appointing advertising agencies and consultants to help them spruce up their image. But none of the resulting initiatives has succeeded in bringing back the millions of visitors lost since the introduction of entry charges. Crucially, they concentrated on the outdated concept of a “youth market” without appreciating that this was precisely the group—whether in families or as students—least likely to have surplus spending power. And by promoting the more conspicuous forms of added value with bought-in blockbusters, ace cafés and Christmas gift catalogues, the marketeers diverted attention away from the museums’ fundamental concern with their collections, which badly needed to be re-addressed. “Customer satisfaction” and “value for money” were construed on the level of the state of the lavatories.

Although Sue Runyard sees marketing not as a bolt-on addition but as a fundamental part of a museum’s wider strategy, she does not appear to advocate a lead role in policy-making. She is more interested in technique. She is briskly dismissive of overpriced logos and badly drafted visitor surveys. An authentic voice of experience, gleaned no doubt from her years at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Natural History Museum, enlivens many sections. Her account of things that go wrong at the printers (“bits of pasted-up text falling off artwork—mental blackouts among copywriters resulting in Tuesday 22nd instead of Tuesday 23rd ...!) and her checklist of safeguards (“work with intelligent designers”) is well worth reading.

She pinpoints the problem of getting press coverage for exhibitions in museums which are not devoted to the fine arts but to social history, science, technology or natural history: simply, in Britain there are no specialist correspondents of real critical judgment to deal with these fields. The section on emergency plans is full of good advice on how to limit the damage when dealing with the press. And would that one museum director, not a million miles away from Arthur’s Seat, had followed her advice under Q for Quotability:

“Museum people are rarely put in real hot seats, but often feel battered by their contacts with the media. Preparation is the key... At the same time you must realise that an element of surprise can work in their [journalists’] favour—in startling an unguarded or over-stated response from you. Some thought beforehand in conjunction with a colleague can anticipate most questions”.

Sue Runyard The Museum Marketing Handbook, (HMSO in association with Museums & Galleries Commission, London, 1994), 140 pp. 16 b/w ills. £14.95

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How to deliver the goods'