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Running a museum


Museums have a wide variety of functions ranging from developing and caring for collections, to engaging with visitors and communities, to keeping the building safe and welcoming. All these require some form of management to ensure the best use of money and other resources for the museum to achieve its aims.

The importance of planning

Leading and managing a museum has many similarities to managing any other business.

Although we may be less comfortable with some of the terminology around profit, finance and accounting, unless the museum makes a surplus it won’t survive beyond the short-term. Understanding your costs and cash flow, managing your risks and diversifying your income streams to reduce reliance on one source of funding will allow your museum to survive and thrive.

In short, the better your business plan, the more you will impact your visitors. Your museum exists to make a difference to your identified communities and to preserve your collections for the future. All of this requires comprehensive, strategic planning.

Key issues

  • Be realistic about all your activities, understand where the costs lie and where the income will come from.
  • Think long-term - if you have start-up or project funding, what happens when it runs out?
  • Get the right processes in place for working with people, your most important resource.
  • Expect and know how you will deal with change, which will happen.

A sustainable business plan

A business plan is one of the most important tools available to a museum.

It is "a road map showing potential funders, trustees, stakeholders and most of all you, where you are starting from now, where you aim to go and how and when you are going to get there. It will also show them your plan for sustainability and how you will attract and generate the funds you need to pay for what’s necessary." (AIM Success Guide)

Develop your business plan using all the stakeholders who are vital to a project's success.

What to include

A business plan should help you keep track of how well objectives are being met, whether you are missing any new opportunities or whether changing conditions should affect your museum. Sometimes deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what you should be doing.

A plan should be developed within the context of your purpose and should include:

  • Ways of identifying operating costs and restricted funds
  • Where to look for sources of income and finance
  • Market research indicating where your visitors will come from
  • Identification and management of risk
  • Minimising your environmental impact
  • Ways to measure your progress and monitor your performance
  • An awareness of legal issues, as outlined in the section on models of governance

Stages of a business plan

A strategic business plan follows a basic three-step structure of analysis of resources and context, choosing from a range of options then implementing that plan.

Before starting your plan, gather all the information you need, such as:

  • Accounts
  • Existing plans
  • Projected visitor numbers
  • Visitor feedback
  • Funder's priorities
  • Community needs

Then, you need to identify a number of key influences, including:

  • Potential audiences
  • Possible activities
  • Available resources, such as money, collections and buildings
  • Changes that might affect the museum
  • Options for taking advantage of new opportunities or mitigating their impact
  • Projected income and expenditure
  • Cash flow, particularly if your project includes large grants
  • How you will ensure things are on track
  • Who can make decisions and how they will be made

Once you have established these influences, keep the document live and ensure that it is reviewed regularly.

Avoid a business model that barely covers running costs as it leaves no ability to invest in new developments. Be alert to your cash flow - especially when there is a delay between project expenditure and grant income. Remember, never mix up restricted project costs and unrestricted revenue.

[PDF of Business Plan Template]

Sources of funding

Reduced public funding, lower returns from investments and increased competition for grants means that museums have to be more persistent, organised and entrepreneurial than ever about where they look for funding.

Remember these key points:

  • Funding is about building and maintaining long-term effective relationships.
  • Involve everyone - donations and sales come from building relationships with visitors and supporters. All staff and volunteers can champion the museum and its benefits.
  • Trustees may have a role in fundraising or additional patrons may be recruited.
  • Look for funding from many small sources as opposed to reliance on one source of income.
  • Think creatively about how you generate income, perhaps looking for capital growth and investment income.
  • Seek income that is a good match for your organisation's mission, such as charging for extra experiences, as long as it fits your model of governance.
  • High turnover - the amount of business being done - and surplus, or profit, are different things. You need both for your museum to grow.
  • Increased unrestricted income makes your museum spending more flexible.

Types of funding

Income generation

You can cover core running costs through income streams such as:

  • Admission charges, which have the potential to be your highest source of income
  • Café, either owned by you or run by someone else on your site
  • Delivery contracts with another organisation
  • Products such as exhibition merchandise, special events and reproduction licenses
  • Retail sales from your shop, reproductions and research fees
  • Learning sessions, where you charge for school activities
  • Venue hire and hospitality for meeting rooms, weddings and events


These are usually for one-off projects and development costs. A few do cover ongoing running costs. Read below for guidance on applying for grants.


This can be individual or corporate, using some of the following methods:

  • Fundraising events, such as coffee mornings or sponsored activities
  • Gifts and donations, using traditional donation boxes, bequests, regular giving, online giving and crowd-funding
  • Membership schemes that require an annual payment for benefits such as reduced admission
  • Sponsorship from local businesses and other sources


It's possible for museums to build up interest on their reserves or to gain money from the increased value of their assets, such as the building itself.

Grant application advice

  • Do your homework and be specific with your applications. Scattergun approaches don't work - meet funders between your needs and theirs. Look up their annual report to see how they usually spend money.
  • Make contact with the grants officer or funder well in advance of submitting your application. They could provide an indication about your chances of success and guide your application.
  • Check your project's eligibility against the funders' criteria. Don't waste your time if you don't meet them.
  • Involve your colleagues and draw on knowledge from across the organisation.
  • Identify what will make your project stand out.
  • Avoid sector-specific jargon.
  • Provide an accurate and sensible budget.
  • Persuade donors that supporting culture is as important to the wellbeing of the community as other charitable causes.
  • Look beyond 'heritage' grant streams. Think creatively about sources of funding linked to the idea and subject of your collection.

Key points

  • Maximise any financial sources by using Gift Aid if you are a registered charity.
  • One of the best ways to save money is through smart procurement.
  • Remember that some governing documents come with restrictions on trading activity. In some circumstances a separate trading arm may be recommended.
  • Identify all costs associated with your income stream - it may cost more than you can generate.
  • Think about the full cost of generating different types of income and develop those that offer the best return for your investment of time and money.

Working with staff and volunteers

People are the the most important resource for museums.

Museums Galleries Scotland have already written an extensive guide to training and developing volunteers. Read through that for comprehensive guidance on volunteers and staff.

Below are some of the basic things to remember when working with staff and volunteers:

  • Employees come with statutory rights including a written statement of terms of employment, paid holiday and the national living wage.
  • Part time workers have the same rights (pro-rata) as comparable full time workers.
  • If your staff and volunteers work with children or vulnerable adults you may need to register them with the Protecting Vulnerable Groups scheme (PVG).
  • Volunteers do not have a legal contract, but you can establish a role agreement that sets out mutual expectations and behaviours.
  • Working with people is about far more than legal requirements. The most important aspect is to let them know how important and appreciated they are. Invest time, effort, passion and knowledge into your staff and volunteers.

Equality and diversity

Equality is ensuring individuals or groups of individuals are treated fairly and equally and no less favourably, specific to their needs. This includes areas of race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. Promoting equality should remove discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Diversity aims to recognise, respect and value the differences in people’s contributions, allowing everyone to realise their full potential.

That's why the Equality Act 2010 exists - it ensures that your museum is relevant to many audiences, which is critical to its survival and purpose. Reflect your different communities in your workforce and involve your varied audiences in the museum. The act prohibits discrimination and harassment of any kind, making your establishment a more welcoming and inclusive place.

The Equality Act

The Act consolidates and strengthens previous equality laws.

Characteristics that fall under its protection are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

The act prohibits:

  • Direct discrimination, including by association and perception
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Pregnancy and maternity discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Third party harassment
  • Discrimination arising from disability

It also includes a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

The Act applies to all organisations that provide a service to the public. Failure to comply will leave you open to legal challenge from individuals or groups.

Embedding equality and diversity

  • Create an inclusive culture that treats all staff, volunteers and visitors fairly.
  • Design your exhibitions, displays and activities so that they don't discriminate against individuals or groups. Ensure that all your visitors can take part in them.
  • Encourage your entire workforce to develop to their full potential.
  • Make sure that everyone knows how to recognise and challenge both inequality and discrimination
  • Ensure that your policies, procedures and processes don't discriminate.
  • Encourage everyone, where practical, to have a say in museum decision-making.
  • Broaden where you advertise for staff and volunteers.
  • Establish that everyone has a role to play in promoting and embedding diversity, from trustees to front of house staff to curators.
  • Make adjustments to your building, where possible, to allow access to all the collections and displays. Consider compliance with the British Standard 8300 for disabled access.
  • Devise a plan for involving different sections of your community, across ages, genders and races.
  • Make everyone feel welcome to your museum, removing any barriers that may make people feel unwelcome.
  • Remember that in catering to one group, you may inadvertently put off another.

Review and response

Every museum needs to be able to respond to change, which is not a one-off event, but the normal state of being for even the most established museums.

When you want to create stability and ensure that collections are preserved for future generations, change can be confusing. It can happen because of external factors such as development in technology or the changing economy. Equally, it could be because the audience expectations of a museum evolve.

Resilience arises from your approach to actively managing, reviewing and adapting your plans, keeping focused on your goals.

How to manage change

Poorly managed change can alienate stakeholders and increase the costs of your museum.

To combat this, follow these guidelines:

  • Keep a clear vision. The route may vary, but the direction remains the same.
  • Maintain constant communication with stakeholders to manage expectations and keep their trust.
  • Take time with solutions, don't rush them.
  • Scan the horizon regularly.
  • Don't take on more without considering whether you need to stop doing something to free up time for the new activity.
  • Identify how you will monitor progress and when you will revise and act on your plans according to what you have learnt.

Recognise that everyone responds to change differently, but remember that at all times you need to keep a focus on your purpose and goals.

Case study: Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre

Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre is social enterprise running a museum, shop, library and café on the Isle of Lismore at the southern end of the Great Glen. A charitable company limited by guarantee, it is also an Accredited museum.

The Centre was largely built up through successful grant funding. However, it is extremely difficult to secure grants for ongoing running costs and the organisation’s key focus is now to develop a robust business plan to make sure it remains financially sustainable.

In their own words

Our story started in 1994 when our three founder members came together to form The Historical Society – Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mòr. They held a public meeting at which nine others joined – most of whom are still involved in the Comann.

The teacher’s house on the island became vacant and, after negotiation with the former Strathclyde Regional Council, Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mòr was established in the schoolhouse at Achnacroish in 1995.

Support from the Nadair Trust and Cadispa allowed us to employ an experienced fundraiser at a time when EU and other funding was available to community projects like ours. We succeeded in raising money firstly to restore the cottage, a typical ‘cottar’s house’ and then for a new building to house our museum, which was completed in March 2007.

The result is an ecologically friendly building designed to fit with the landscape and culture of this gentle and beautiful island.

Our centre has enhanced the social life of our island by providing a place for people to meet and has helped increase visitor numbers to the island as a place to visit. We are very much part of our community, run largely by volunteers and constantly engaging people with our collection.


We have had a lot of success in raising money for projects. But it’s difficult to find money for running costs and we are now at a stage when we need renewal funding to address the ongoing wear and tear. We have been pleased to receive a grant from Just Enterprise for a consultant to help us become more financially sustainable.

Being a museum

We have been collecting artefacts since the Society started. We raised funds for two part time museum officers who helped us establish proper procedures to care for our collection.

We are proud to be an Accredited museum which is good news for the island – we now have somewhere for people to deposit local artefacts – for example the results of archaeological finds. The process has also highlighted the importance of proper governance and what it means to be the guardians of the building and the collection.

We are most proud of...

  • The courage and vision of the original founding group of islanders
  • Our building and the social enterprise side of what we are doing
  • Our collection
  • Our focus on the Gaelic language and heritage which brings us support from far afield
  • Being an accredited museum

Our advice for others

  • Go for it!
  • Make sure you have the right group of people with enthusiasm, skills and an understanding that much of what you will be doing may be routine and boring at times. A mixture of vision and patience!
  • Look past the shiny new projects and have a proper structured forward plan.

The Big Question

It is fundamental that you can generate enough income to run the museum from year to year to cover all your costs and allow you to invest in keeping it fresh and relevant. The next step helps you ask the critical questions to help you determine whether you have a sustainable business model.

Do you have a viable museum business?


Creating a business plan


Volunteers and staff

Equality and diversity

Review and response